Many years ago I was in a position where I read all the cables coming into my then Department from Australia's overseas posts. These included some remarkably detailed and frank assessments on people and activities in particular countries. My security clearance also meant that I saw some secret and top secret material, including code word material. This material was distributed by hand. In some cases, our security bloke sat there while I read it.
Not all of the assessments were valid even then. They included gossip and ephemeral material that had relevance, if it had relevance, just at a point in time. However, some of it was pungent and to the point.
A substantial proportion of the workings of an Government depends upon the maintenance of a degree of confidentiality. I used to think that there was too much confidentiality. Now I am coming to think that the opposite holds true. Certainly as a former reasonably senior public servant, I would not have written to my minister in the open way I did if I had thought that my advice might be leaked.
I always knew that my advice would go onto the public record one day for anybody who might want to read it. My concern was simply effectiveness at the time, including the chance to put forward ideas that were not necessarily thought through, did not involve a decision, but were simply part of the process of generating new policy. Because I knew my minister and his sense of humour, sometimes I would put things in such a way as to get a laugh.
To a substantial degree, good public policy depends upon the combination of two things: the capacity to think things though within a confidential space, combined with a proper paper trail so that final accountability is there.
Apart from the immediate damage done by Wikileaks to a variety of people and national interests, the latest imbroglio is likely to continue the erosive process that has been underway for some time, the removal of things from the record.
The role of the Government archivist is in part to preserve critical records so that later generations, and not so much later as all that, can understand and critique Government actions. This is longer term accountability.
But what happens when stuff is no longer recorded or, if recorded, is so sanitised as to be unusable? What happens when material sent is consciously deleted, delete after reading?
As you know, I am a bit of a history nut. As an historian, I deal with official records all the time. As a consultant and contractor dealing with current issues, I actually work with current record systems in private as well as public sectors. I can tell you that many of those systems are a mess and getting worse. They will get worse still if critical stuff is deleted.
I will try to write a proper post on this point so that I just don't seem an old fashioned fuddy-duddy. I have in fact worked within the on-line environment for the best part of thirty years.
For the moment, I just wanted to record my view that Mr Assange has, to my mind, done great damage that works directly against the things that he claims to believe in. It is, I fear, a case of ego rampant.
I see from his twitter feed that my old friend Paul Barratt seems to disagree with my position. KVD, a regular commenter, has also taken me to task. I am cooking tea, so can't add more at the moment, but stand by my position.
I will add more, maybe tomorrow.
I have added quite a long comment in response to KVD. I leave it to you to decide whether or not my concerns are justified.
In terms of the nature of the response, have a look at Assange could face prosecution and years in jail.
In a comment on a skepticslawyers post, Wikileaks and the brave new world of freedom of information, KVD asked:
Jim Belshaw gave a very good summary in a comment on his blog about the ramifications of this from the perspective of governments who wish to retain necessary confidentiality. I hope he frontpages it for future reference.
David, your wish is my command! I wrote:
KDV, we need to disentangle a few issues.
I don't know just what the Guardian means when it says that this type of information is readily available in the normal course to about 3 million Americans.
The US is about twenty times Australia in population. The Australian equivalent would be something over 150,000. There could well be 150,000 Australians including the military who have a security clearance to at least confidential level and who could therefore have at least theoretical access to at least some of the material. However, the number who have actual access is far less because of need to know.
As I see it, there are a cascade of issues in this case.
We start with the question of the extent to which Governments are, or should be, entitled to keep information confidential.
Then, within this boundary, we have the issue of when an employee or someone else with access is entitled in an ethical sense to breach trust or indeed break the law.
Beyond this, there is the question of those who then publish the material. Normally here we are talking about the media who have a general duty to report.
Then we have wikileaks, an organisation whose sole business is the publication of leaked information.
The ethical issues involved with wikileaks are different from those facing the Guardian. I would have thought that once the Guardian was given the material knowing that others would publish it including wikileaks, Guardian publication in some form was inevitable on both practical business grounds and because non-publication could be seen as censorship by the paper.
Surrounding these cascading issues are other sets of issues linked to the impact of the leaks.
If you look at immediate responses here, the commentary is set by individual or organisation frames of reference.
Because I have been so obsessed with the ways that Government systems work or don't work and the reasons for that, my immediate reaction was to ask what it means for the working of Government, rather than either the ethical questions or the impact on foreign policy, individuals and state reputations and relations.
At a general level, I had formed the view that approaches to information were part of the reason why Government systems and policy making were becoming less effective. Again at a general level, since I started blogging I have charted some of the ways in which Government responses to problems including issues with information have compounded problems.
To my mind, the biggest danger created by wikileaks lies in the nature of likely Government responses. I expect these to, among other things, reduce access to information; to increase the risks and penalties for those who do speak out; and to increase the constipation in Government systems that has already reduced effectiveness.
No Government can ignore what has happened. In Australia we have a whole of Government task force addressing the implications of the leaks. The position in the US is more complicated and dangerous.
It is over twenty years since I had direct contact with the US system and especially the military/defence side. The thing I noticed then was the sheer focus on security, on controls, on risks and rules that seemed to me to verge on paranoia. It was just a bit of a shock.
Reading the US reactions, we have hurt national pride, we have fury, we have demands for responses. While it is difficult to predict how all this will play out, I think that the likely effects will include further controls, a diminution in individual freedoms. God help the next whistle blower.
At a purely practical level, we can expect changes in the way that information is stored, disseminated and managed. I don't expect these to be good, either.
Since I wrote this comment, I have learned some facts that affect the detail but not the thrust of the comment. That's a matter for another post.
I added a later post, Musings on blogging & the Assange case that's just a muse from a personal blogging perspective.