Whereto for Wikileaks?

Well, they’ve done it again. Queensland-boy Julian Assange and his band of merry journalists and IT-nerds have flooded the internet once again with sensitive information that embarrasses several governments, most notably the US, by releasing the content of several hundred thousand diplomatic cables. The revelations in these cables range from salacious information about the ‘blonde Ukranian nurse’ that the Libyan leader Kaddafi hangs out with, to truly important stuff like the widespread misinformation that Arab leaders perpetrate on their own population in the form of covertly urging the Americans to invade Iran whilst openly washing their hands of American actions. This is the third time now that Wikileaks has managed to get an immense amount of public attention on the underbelly of government operations. And more has been promised in that we are to get the inside information on how a big American bank really does business.

What we have seen so far is still fairly benign. The leaks on the Irak and Afghan campaigns show what the term ‘fog of war’ really means, i.e. that mistakes are made, that nasty people can do nasty things if given discretion, and that civil war is not pretty. This is no surprise to those who study war, but it does go counter to the clean image that sides present of themselves in the media (including the image of the islamists: the number of tortured beheaded corpses found in Iraq was quite something. The released documents form an historical record of what Muslims did to each other). The same goes for the diplomatic leaks: few surprises to the insiders, but there is a distinct loss of face. Those who think the public can handle the truth and want open government in general should rejoice (though for reasons entirely unclear to me, some advocates of free information don’t ). The realists amongst us simply note that the ability of governments to maintain an image has just been reduced a notch. Not by much, but it is a reduction in the power of government relative to the discerning portion of their populations, which is of course why governments are displeased.

What will happen to the Wikileaks team? Are we in the age where governments will really be held accountable by their populations? Is the uncovering of sensitive information good or bad for our democracies and international security? These are the issues mused about below.

What will happen to Wikileaks is a guessing same. Here’s mine: a fly cannot irk big beasts for too long without being swatted by them. Soon Julian Assange will get caught, if not by Interpol which seems to be close to putting out a warrant on him, then by the Australian prosecutors who will want to ‘scrutinise whether he has broken the law’, or else some other Western government. Once he is caught, I predict he will spend the rest of his life in the courts. His prior actions make it believable that he would skip bail, so as long as new charges can be brought against him (and diligent American prosecutors can be very creative about these things), he can be kept busy for the rest of his life. The army of pro-bono lawyers that will undoubtedly adopt his case will still not prevent him from being caught in red tape.

There are those that believe Mr. Assange will meet an accident, but I personally think no Western politician can afford to give that order and that he will thus simply be kept busy once caught. Indeed, I would expect him to be relatively well-treated as a person for fear of making a martyr out of him, or the fear of what he has up his sleeve to reveal. Julian Assange in that sense has a fairly clear historical predecessor in the 19th century. A Scot named David Urquhart published confidential state papers of the Russian government and then later of the Victorian government. He even founded several outlets in his attempt to do away with state secrets. This killed his career but he was still allowed to live out his days on ‘the continent’.

How are they going to legally go after the whistle-blowers in future? The most practical suggestion I have seen sofar is to make an awful lot more information copy-righted. If nearly all sensitive material is copy-righted then copyright laws can be used to go after any individual or organisation disseminating it without having to resort to shady ‘national security’ laws. Perhaps other means will be found.

Yet, the genie is out of the bottle. The ability of the internet to disseminate sensitive information around the world in milliseconds will guarantee that other whistle-blowing sites will come and go and that there will be thus remain some forum for widespread leaks. Leaking has undoubtedly become easier. And sexier! The fact that Julian Assange has managed to get random women to sleep with him in Sweden (and who now primarily seem to want to charge him for rape because he didn’t use a condom) is of course an added incentive for any other would-be organiser of these kinds of leaks. Pop-star status and its trappings attract copy-cats.

How much does the ability to put sensitive information on the web and out of reach of governments reduce their power? Hard to say, but I would think not much, at least not in the short run. Governments controlled 40% of GDP yesterday and will do so tomorrow. Most of their activities and their budgets are already quite visible. The real power of governments is in the belief of their populations that they are working in the interest of those populations and that itself requires no secrecy as long as that is what they do. In well-functioning states, few secrets are really important. Secrecy is more aimed at protecting individuals within the bureaucracy from criticism and accountability, but is not really important for the operation of the state as a whole. Far more open-minded states than the Anglo-Saxon model survive perfectly well, notably Sweden or even the Netherlands (not much is secret there). Nevertheless, states have immense resources available to guide information streams, so they have many options open to keep things secret. They can devise more secure internal systems, make it harder to copy information and keep the sensitive information in different data formats. No doubt, they will do this.

A fear propounded by those who see the wikileaks of this world as attacking the nation state, is that telling the world about the internal deliberations of government exposes useful secrets to enemies. This effect seems likely to be minimal, even if far more sensitive material is released than has been released so far. It is already impossible to keep the deliberations of a large group of people secret. Foreign governments and big corporations already can find out pretty accurately what is being thought about them in a big bureaucracy via spying, bribery, poaching of ex-employees, unofficial communication, etc. Apparently, 3 million Americans have security clearance to see sensitive documents. Leaks about internal deliberations are thus not going to be helping our enemies by telling them something they didn’t know.

What about the ability to keep an image? That has of course been reduced, but there the reality is that few in the West are truly interested in the internal deliberations of government or other big organisations for that matter and hence the masses can easily be lead to ignore such leaks. The fact that it is now a little easier for the already well-informed to spot the hypocrisy of any image is immaterial. For the majority of the population, the revelations of greatest interest are probably the salacious bits of gossip about famous politicians.

Does leaking increase accountability? I would say unequivocally yes. The less any organisation can keep a secret, the more an organisation has to keep within the social norms of the society it operates in, which is the essence of accountability. The question is whether we have seen much of real interest so far uncovered by the online journalism of wikileaks. For my taste, the exposure of the war documents will probably make army commanders in the next war be a little more careful than they would otherwise be, and the exposure of the hypocrisy of the Saudi elite should be an eye-opener to the general population, but there has not yet been anything to really bother the rich and powerful. To have true accountability one would want far more insidious information: one would want to know the names of corrupt officials and details of the shady deals done by private organisations. Of course, that is far harder to get since one is then chasing the same information that the police is chasing so one cannot really expect too much there.

There is finally the question whether accountability is really that desirable when it comes to civil servants. One would definitely want accountability in the long-run, but in the short-run there is something to be said for a bit of trust and non-interference.

Hence, on the whole, I’d say Julian Assange is destined for a lifetime of prison food unless he finds a country willing to protect him. Wikileaks should be applauded for its adherence to the ideal of openness and government accountability, but it has not yet opened up the powerful to truly invasive scrutiny of the bad things some of them get up to. Perhaps that is yet to come. I certainly hope so.

48 thoughts on “Whereto for Wikileaks?

  1. I’ll wait to see what happens to him if he releases some secret Russian documents before deciding if he’ll spend his life on prison food — Given that he’s not dieing of radiation poisoning from some impossible to get isotope, I think some governments have been very restrained. However, now there is the possibility that some non-Western government will get him, or some Western government will get him and blame some non-Western government. It will be interesting to see, for example, how the Chinese deal with him for releasing the stuff about North Korea (which I think was very important for everyone — It tells us that it should be quite possible to simply wait North Korea out versus bother with any action).

  2. The dodge with copyrighting would not work within the US itself:

    “A work of the United States government… …such works are not entitled to domestic copyright protection under U.S. law, sometimes referred to as “noncopyright.” ”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_status_of_work_by_the_U.S._government

    I think it is a constitutional provision. US government publications may be copied and republished by anyone without fee. Printers publish and sell government documents and the ads make them cheaper than the original govt publication.

  3. There’s a hint of armchair journalism speculating on what might happen to Assange if certain people or regimes take extreme actions. This makes me feel uncomfortable at a time when I applaud what Wikileaks has done. Remember the cockpit recordings from the helicopter gunship in Iraq and be outraged. I just hope the team behind Assange is resolute enough to stay the course, to not be deterred by the idiocy of our Attorney General fossicking around trying to find an Australian law that Assange might have broken so that he can revoke his passport. Or worse. McClelland’s actions help me maintain my outrage. So too with Hillary Clinton. Defense Secretary Gates is at least maintaining a sense of US perspective (ie 1st amendment -free speach) to the latest leaks. Sure there will be a lot of salacious dross getting attention. But the latest stuff on China and the Koreas should at least check our Kevin Rudd and his speculations about Australians joining a war in defence of South Korea. We should all be resolute in also defending a fellow countryman against state sanctioned immorality.

  4. Thx for the post Paul, I agree with most of it.

    Mike is right about US Govt documents, but that law can be changed. But I can’t see how copyright works. I would have thought that without the unusual (and very and most circumstances very good) US approach, content is automatically copyrighted – owing to the way in which copyright was changed under the Berne Convention in or around the 1970s from something one needed to claim to activate to something that lies inherent in a creation from its creation until disowned?

    Also copyright material can be summarised and even quoted from – so that doesn’t stop any juice getting out. Remember, copyright protects the expression not the ‘idea’ or the content.

  5. Clinton and McLelland will be acting on the advice of their bureaucrats, but of course that advice is far from disinterested; it’s the bureaucrats more than the politicians who are embarrassed by disclosures about their club. I dunno about Hillary, but I doubt McLelland has enough independence of mind to understand that.

    I reckon we should scrutinise the evidence for those rape charges with interest. There have got to be a lot of intelligence services around the world who would have been keen to set a honey trap, but OTOH its not like Swedes have a reputation for buckling to US pressures for politically motivated prosecutions which Australia risks acquiring.

  6. Mike, Nick,

    I admit my ignorance to copyright laws. It seemed a neat way for bureaucracies to tackle wikileaks and its successors, but if the US constitution truly prevents government documents from being copyrighted, that would indeed seem to be the end of the road for that idea.
    As to copyrights having little chance of being effective because one can always quote: quoting from material is not going to be very appealing for sites that want to leak things: it would involve much more work and the outside world would be much more impressed with the full documents.

    Conrad,

    I agree that Mr. Assange is in more danger today now that he is being seen to go after the Russian maffia and the Russian government. I cant see the Russian maffia having any qualms in getting rid of him. Perhaps a Western prison where he will live in comfort is starting to look mighty enticing at the moment. I also agree that we saw some quite interesting stuff today. To have a senior Spanish prosecutor describe Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as a maffia state is not small fry, even though it is of course pure hearsay. The revelation on the legal loophole allowing storage of cluster bombs in the UK is precisely the form of leak that increases government accountability.

    Pablo,

    yes, speculating about Mr. Assange’s fait is pure armchair journalism, but making actual predictions is a form of accountability to readers.
    I must say i was less bothered by the cockpit recordings of the helicopter in Iraq. In a war where dozens of army units come under fire every day and where the stress put on soldiers is very high, some of them are going to do stupid things. I found it surprising just how few such clear incidents were found in the documents. On the whole, you get the impression that a lot more care is taken by the Americans to avoid collateral damage in Iraq and Afghanistan than is taken by the islamists.
    Indeed, I find that the general picture arising from the documents is quite flattering to the Americans. They are being begged by governments the world over to solve other people’s problems. Perhaps that is because the nastier dirt on the Americans has not been released, but still.

  7. DD,

    agreed on the politicians taking advise from interested parties.

    The rape charges have been discussed an awful lot on the internet, including the odds that it was a set-up. I can do no better than refer to a random post discussing dozens of other random posts, in terms fed by press statements by others: http://fabiusmaximus.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/20773/
    The picture that emerges there is that it is very unlikely that the actual sexual encounters were a set-up. Whether this was some behind-the-scene manipulation in order to get the women to press charges is a different matter. It sounds unlikely.

  8. Yeah Paul the flattery the US Washington elite should feel could be turned to their advantage in future negotiations, depending on whether a ‘begging’ regime has the capacity to be embarrassed. For example, Egypt’s Mubarak in the middle of an election could be in trouble by exposure of his weak two-timing with Iran. But I doubt the Saudi’s feel embarrassed about much. It doesn’t sound like Putin publickly enjoys the alpha male tag but privately… And maybe Russia isn’t the worlds biggest kleptocracy.
    Like you say, sit back and enjoy it.

  9. In other news on wikileaks:

    Amazon.com Inc. forced WikiLeaks to stop using the U.S. company’s computers to distribute embarrassing State Department communications and other documents, WikiLeaks said Wednesday.

    I find the moralistic approach a bit rich until they turn up something about someone genuinely nasty, but overall, I like the idea.

    In addition, I agree entirely with Paul Frijters that the overall picture is one of American ‘not-that-bad’ness more than anything else! At the same time, this emphasises how the Afghanistanian documents in particular can appear rather gratuitious.

  10. A fear propounded by those who see the wikileaks of this world as attacking the nation state, is that telling the world about the internal deliberations of government exposes useful secrets to enemies.

    James Rubin emphasises the fact that occasionally diplomats are conspiring for good rather than evil. Some negotiations depend on confidentiality, because the negotiaters — for example Palestinians or Israelis — would be pilloried for compromising too much. I think there’s probably something in that.

  11. Pingback: WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange: Oz Hero or Villain · Global Voices

  12. James,

    you raise the point that sometimes, leaders can be ahead of their populations and move towards solutions whilst maintaining a hard line in public. That two-faced approach is important in negotiations and in situations where a hard line is the only way to live if you cant get a deal. You would not want the secret negotiations become public at the wrong moment.

    Whilst I see the possibility, I havent seen an example of that yet come out in the leaks. Perhaps such negotiations are kept more secret or perhaps wikileaks has not blown their cover, but I cant think of an instance like that revealed yet. Can you?

    For instance, the revelations about the probable corruption of many world leaders (the Turkish prime minister Erdogan and the Karzai family) are clearly embarassing to them, and to the diplomats whose private observations of this corruption are now public. But surely there is a public interest in knowing this and no real public interest in keeping this secret? Would the Turks and Afghans be better off with a corrupt government whilst having to live with hypocritical Westeners who pretend their administration is above board, or would they be better off with a corrupt government that is a source of open condemnation in the rest of the world? Surely there is more hope for improvement in the latter case than in the former.

  13. I think the job Assange is doing is fine, whatever his motives may be. He opens up the windows. From now people are aware that everything they say on electronic mail is potentially going to go public.

    We don’t know what this will lead to though. Perhaps we end up going back to the old satchel, which would be hilarious. However that doesn’t mean the people feeding this stuff to Assange ought be treated with kid gloves.

    As the WSJ editor says about the person who made it all possible and have basically forgotten:

    Pfc. Bradley Manning, charged with downloading all that data for Assange, is sitting in a Quantico jail. He could get 52 years. He should.

  14. On a related issue, why aren’t more people outraged about Asaange’s trumped up rape charge which is actually a ridiculous charge of having sex without a condom?

    http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/12/02/when-it-comes-to-assange-r-pe-case-the-swedes-are-making-it-up-as-they-go-along/

    Apparently having consensual sex in Sweden without a condom is punishable by a term of imprisonment of a minimum of two years for rape. That is the basis for a reinstitution of rape charges against WikiLeaks figurehead Julian Assange that is destined to make Sweden and its justice system the laughing stock of the world and dramatically damage its reputation as a model of modernity …

    In the case of Ardin it is clear that she has thrown a party in Assange’s honour at her flat after the “crime” and tweeted to her followers that she is with the “the world’s coolest smartest people, it’s amazing!”. Go on the internet and see for yourself. That Ardin has sought unsuccessfully to delete these exculpatory tweets from the public record should be a matter of grave concern. That she has published on the internet a guide on how to get revenge on cheating boyfriends ever graver. The exact content of Wilén’s mobile phone texts is not yet known but their bragging and exculpatory character has been confirmed by Swedish prosecutors. Niether Wilén’s nor Ardin’s texts complain of rape.

  15. Crikey was down when I checked just now. But Counterpunch has a fairly detailed story on the background of the Assange “rape” charges, which sound like they’re fairly clearly trumped up.

    And as to whether either Assange or Wikileaks as a whole has committed a criminal offence in Australia or elsewhere by leaking documents, legal academic Ben Saul has an excellent piece today on the ABC website.

    I have to say I still have a serious problem with the wisdom and ethics of leaking these documents which, with very rare exceptions, don’t disclose any corruption, waste, mismanagement or other wrongdoing (the usual and proper scope of legitimate “whistleblowing”) but merely disclose internal confidential communications between governments. Inter-governmental dealings, like corporate and family dealings, necessarily require confidentiality and the law to varying extents protects confidences (though usually not by means of the criminal law). The actions of Assange and Wikileaks are not whistleblowing; they are not performing a valuable or even useful public interest function because there is no legitimate public interest in eavesdropping on confidential communications for its own sake or to satisfy idle curiosity.

    However that certainly doesn’t mean Assange should be charged, demonised or assassinated(!!!). What it DOES mean is that the Americans should get their house in order ASAP and tighten up on security so that mass document dumps simply cannot occur. It is said that up to 2 million people potentially had access to the Wikileaks dumped documents, which is just absurd.

    BTW Good to see you around the blogosphere again, Jason.

  16. On a related issue, why aren’t more people outraged about Asaange’s trumped up rape charge which is actually a ridiculous charge of having sex without a condom?

    Really? That’s the rape charge? How would the Swedish legal authorities know if he was wearing a condom during Assange’s stay there? LOL.

    It takes a real gift for this dude to have virtually every single government pissed off at him and wanting to wring his neck….Almost every single one. This is a truly unique talent.

  17. Thanks Ken, I’ve been lurking and commenting occasionally for a while now.

    JC, from the article

    But then neither Arden nor Wilén complained to the police but rather “sought advice”, a technique in Sweden enabling citizens to avoid just punishment for making false complaints. They sought advice together, having collaborated and irrevocably tainted each other’s evidence beforehand.

    Now, colour me cynical but either this was a set up with the two women having some third party collaborator in common or alternatively the two got pissed off when they both found out Asaange was sleeping with both of them and got together to do something about it.

    The no condom law is absolute lunacy. Aren’t the Swedes interesting in making more Swedes? Note it’s ‘no condom despite both parties consenting not to use one before the event’. The rationale appears to be to deter men from pressuring women to have unsafe sex. But in practice what it means is that after the event, if you piss the woman off she can report you even if she was perfectly happy consenting before.

  18. The Counterpunch story recites the facts like this:

    Swedish bloggers uncovered the full story in a few hours. The complaint was lodged by a radical feminist Anna Ardin, 30, a one-time intern in the Swedish Foreign Service. She’s spokeswoman for Broderskapsrörelsen, the liberation theology-like Christian organization affiliated with Sweden’s Social Democratic Party. She had invited Julian Assange to a crayfish party, and they had enjoyed some quality time together. When Ardin discovered that Julian shared a similar experience with a 20-year-old woman a day or two later, she obtained the younger woman’s cooperation in declaring before the police that changing partners in so rapid a manner constituted a sort of deceit. And deceit is a sort of rape. The prosecutor immediately issued an arrest warrant, and the press was duly notified. Once the facts were examined in the cold light of day, the charge of rape seemed ludicrous and was immediately dropped. In the meantime the younger woman, perhaps realizing how she had been used, withdrew her report, leaving the vengeful Anna Ardin standing alone.

  19. Ken,

    I must say I disagree with you on the scope of what has a public interest. Scrutinising the actions and words of government is an integral part of a healthy democratic system. The notion that the government, like a doctor, would have some sort of right to privacy when it communicates with other governments and when it makes it assessments about leaders in other countries and strategic possibilities, is a very strange one to me. To use the doctor-patient analogy, government is working for us: we are its patients. Why should it keep secrets from us? Hence the onus of proof of the usefulness of secrecy has to lie with the state, not the whistle-blowers. You seem to take the side of the government bureaucracy.

    I have been pleasantly surprised by just how much information has been uncovered in the last few days that is of public interest:

    - The mistaken kidnapping of a German citizen.
    - The horse trading around Guantanamo.
    - The probable corruption of the Turkish, Afghan, Italian, and Russian heads of state.
    - The extent of political cooptation by the drugs lords in Mexico.
    - The alleged war crimes of the Sri Lankan government.
    - The cluster bombs in the UK
    - The spying at the UN.

    I do think the public interest is served by having this known to the public. It does (slightly) increase the accountability of several governments. Which of these revelations would you say had better been kept under wraps?

    Having said this, some of the leaked documents seem gratuitous. The list of critical sites in particular serves no real public purpose and, I presume, has been leaked as a kind of ‘shot before the bow’.

  20. Paul

    Most of the information you list was already publicly known. All the Wikileaks documents did was to confirm the unsurprising proposition that governments also knew about them, and in quite a few cases reveal their candid appraisals of those events and the players. That’s certainly interesting but hardly “public interest”.

    In my view there is a weighing exercise to be done in assessing potentially competing public interests. That has always been the legal position in relation to FOI and disclosure in litigation of documents for which public interest immunity is claimed. Wkileaks totally subverts any such weighing exercise by pre-emptively releasing anything it gets its hands on irrespective of any notion of public interest. Tamberlin J in the federal court in McKinnon v Secretary, Dept Treasury:

    The public interest is not one homogenous undivided concept. It will often be multi-faceted and the decision-maker will have to consider and evaluate the relative weight of these facets before reaching a final conclusion as to where the public interest resides. This ultimate evaluation of the public interest will involve a determination of what are the relevant facets of the public interest that are competing and the comparative importance that ought to be given to them so that “the public interest” can be ascertained and served. In some circumstances, one or more considerations will be of such overriding significance that they will prevail over all others. In other circumstances, the competing considerations will be more finely balanced so that the outcome is not so clearly predictable. For example, in some contexts, interests such as public health, national security, anti-terrorism, defence or international obligations may be of overriding significance when compared with other considerations. …

    Applying the above principles to the present case, one example of a facet of the public interest that is relevant is the desirability of preserving confidentiality of intra-governmental communications prior to making a decision. Another, and obviously competing, facet of the public interest is the desirability of transparency in public administration.

    I agree, but no such balancing of competing interests occurs with Wikileaks, which in my view is unacceptable from numerous viewpoints.

  21. Paul:

    He’s freaking indiscriminate.

    Rudd’s private conversations with US officials over China policy is the sort of dialogue that goes on behind closed doors away from the public stare. It’s awfully embarrassing for us and very damaging, as a lot of this chatting that goes on is helpful in formulating policy. For all we know it may not have been Rudd’s real position but just an attempt to tease out where the US stood and simply posturing.

    China’s position on a future unified Korea is potentially disastrous in terms of having that out in public. The Nokies may not have known China’s real opinion. This is the sort of thing that sends those paranoid nutcases (NK) crazy and they have nukes.

    The US was bombing what appears to be legit AQ targets in Yemen on behalf of the Yemeni government and now it’s out that the US is doing it rather than the false claim that the Yemenis are themselves.

    As I said earlier Assange may really not be the guilty party, but lets be clear about his false moralizing.

    Who the hell is going to rely on the US that their conversations are not going to be posted on a website, as this sort of chatting is important.

    Some part of government business has to be done away from the media and people/voters are more than aware that this is the case and happy for it to continue to be done in this way.

    He’s doing far more harm than good.

    The genie is now out of the bottle and who knows where this sort of thing will take us because if it’s not Assange there will be someone else doing it.

  22. Ken, Jason,

    I guess the crucial difference in our positions is where we put the onus of proof. If you are naturally suspicious about the corrupting effect of power, the one with great power (the countries) are the ones to watch and to hold to account as much as possible so as to keep them honest, unless there is a clear-cut case of where it would be better that we didnt know something. If you are naturally trusting of the good intentions of government and are not afraid of the corrupting influence of power, then you do not want to curtail or embarrass the current holders of power because that would bind their hands further.

    Wikileaks has only put out a very small percentage of the documents it has, so to say that “Wkileaks totally subverts any such weighing exercise by pre-emptively releasing anything it gets its hands on irrespective of any notion of public interest” is a bit unfair.

    JC,

    yes, posturing is quite likely an element in many of the conversations we hear about. It seems quite possible that Saudi leaders were appealing to particular factions in congress and that China was humoring Western proclivities wrt South Korea. Hard to know.
    I have mixed feelings about Rudd’s remarks on China. It is hard to believe Rudd seriously meant what he was quoted as saying. If he did, that’s a worry.

  23. Jason,

    I had a look at your link and doubt the person writing it really went over any of the wikileaks documents. Your writer basically suggests that wikileaks blew the cover of many human rights informants who would now face persecution and that, as a result, there would be fewer informers and more oppression. I am yet to see any examples of that and have been going through some of the cables to find any such instances (have a go at http://wikileaks.nl/cablegate.html).

    In stead, many of the leaked cables increase the accountability of overseas government as their practices get exposed. See, for instance, what you make of the following cable sent from the embassy in London, which tells a fairly harrowing tale of an Iranian dissident targeted for assassination by the regime. I think this is exactly the sort of thing the public would do well to hear and that does not endanger the source, but judge for yourself:

    C O N F I D E N T I A L LONDON 000131

    NOFORN

    SIPDIS

    EO 12958 DECL: 01/19/2020
    TAGS PINR, PTER, PINS, UK, IR
    SUBJECT: [SOURCE REMOVED] TARGETED BY IRANIAN REGIME

    Classified By: Political Minister Counselor Greg Berry, reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

    ¶1. (C/NF) SUMMARY: [DETAIL REMOVED] and prominent VOA commentator Ali Reza Nourizadeh recently told [NAME REMOVED] he had been targeted by Iranian intelligence, an allegation confirmed by London LEGATT. Nourizadeh was approached some months ago by Mohammad Reza Sadeqinia, an Iranian national who introduced himself as a “big fan” of Nourizadeh’s. Nourizadeh met Sadeqinia on several occasions in London and Washington, DC, but became suspicious when Sadeqinia took large numbers of photos, including of Nourizadeh’s vehicle. Sadeqinia was arrested in California on charges of soliciting murder after he attempted to hire a hitman to kill Iranian-American broadcaster Jamshid Sharmahd. Because his pattern of behavior towards Nourizadeh was similar to his interactions with Sharmahd, FBI shared the threat information with UK authorities, who subsequently warned Nourizadeh. END SUMMARY.

    ¶2. (C/NF) Ali Reza Nourizadeh [DETAILS REMOVED] had been visited by British anti-terrorism police who informed him he had been targeted by the Iranian regime. The UK authorities (who,[NAME REMOVED] later learned had received the threat information from the FBI) told Nourizadeh that Reza Sadeqinia, a man who had visited Nourizadeh several times in London and Washington, DC, was working for the Iranian intelligence services and gathering information on Nourizadeh’s habits. They advised Nourizadeh that Sadeqinia had been arrested in California for soliciting the murder of Iranian-American broadcaster Jamshid Sharmahd.

    ¶3. (C/NF) Nourizadeh, obviously shaken by this news, told [NAME REMOVED] Sadeqinia had contacted him several months before, claiming to be a “big fan” of Nourizadeh’s. Nourizadeh became suspicious after Sadeqinia insisted on taking large numbers of photos, including shots of Nourizadeh’s car and garage. His suspicions were confirmed after he received a message from a well-placed friend who told Nourizadeh he had seen dozens of photos of him on the desk of Iranian Deputy Intelligence Minister Alavi. At that point, Nourizadeh stopped taking Sadeqinia’s calls and heard nothing more about the matter until he was visited by UK anti-terror police January 14.

    ¶4. (C/NF) London LEGATT confirmed the arrest of Sadeqinia in the U.S. after he attempted to hire a man to kill Iranian-American broadcaster Jamshid Sharmahd of Tondar Radio. Prior to the solicitation of the hitman, videos of Sharmahd had begun to appear on YouTube with commentary that he was acting against Iran and an enemy of the state. Sadeqinia apparently admitted his surveillance of both Sharmahd and Nourizadeh and claimed he was working on behalf of Iranian intelligence. After similar videos of Nourizadeh were discovered, the FBI authorized UK authorities to share the threat information with Nourizadeh. UK authorities are working with Nourizadeh to improve his personal security, and Nourizadeh is cooperating by providing information about his interactions with Sadeqinia.

    ¶5. (C/NF) COMMENT: Nourizadeh is a well-known figure both inside and outside Iran, and is an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime, so it is unsurprising that the regime would want to keep a close eye on him. If, however, the regime has targeted Nourizadeh for assassination, as it appears to have done with Sharmahd, it marks a clear escalation in the regime’s attempts to intimidate critics outside its borders, and could have a chilling effect on journalists, academics and others in the West who until recently felt little physical threat from the regime. Nourizadeh, while clearly taking the threat seriously, will not be cowed — he’s faced this type of threat before (many years ago when he first left Iran), and he has confidence in the British authorities’ ability to protect him. In fact, he has encouraged other prominent opposition leaders like Shirin Ebadi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf to relocate to London for their own safety. END COMMENT.
    Visit London’s Classified Website: http://www.intelink.sgov.gov/wiki/Portal:Unit ed_Kingdom
    SUSMAN

  24. Paul:

    I think putting that sort of information on the public record may cause that poor person in even more risk. He may not want to become a public figure and if he did he could just as easily front up to the BBC and tell his story. But I don’t believe Us officials ought to be making that sort of thing public.

  25. I don’t remember Woodward and Bernstein receiving the same degree of opprobrium and it was The Telegraph that blew the whistle on the Profumo Affair.

    This is more an argument over who should be the whistle blower.

  26. JC,

    the article you link to asserts that American diplomats got to know Rudd as an obsessive control freak who made several blunders in foreign policy (snap announcements of policy made on the hoof. Policies that were dead on arrival) and who demoralised much of his staff. It is the sort of thing newspapers would have run in a heartbeat 12 months ago if they new about it, and clearly in the public interest to know. The competency of a current minister and the way Rudd ran his office and now his department is surely of interest to us?

    The fact that it wasnt meant for public consumption is irrelevant. It is in the public interest to know these things. Rather than shoot at the messenger, we should perhaps ask ourselves whether we are happy to trust our foreign affairs with Rudd. I know that electoral considerations cement his position, but we are now at least aware of the tradeoffs made.

  27. Paul

    You seem to be conflating two separate meanings of “public interest”. The fact that Rudd was/is a micro-managing control freak obsessed by the 24 hour news cycle is hardly unknown. How is there a public interest in knowing that US diplomats in Australia reported those perceptions/evaluations back to Washington? You wouldn’t expect otherwise if the diplomats were competent and doing their job. It’s all very interesting in the sense of idly entertaining, but that’s a very different thing from establishing that there is a “public interest” in knowing that US diplomats share general Australian public/media evaluations of Rudd. Any miniscule legitimate public interest in having our existing perceptions reinforced by learning that US diplomats agree is surely vastly outweighed by the public interest in avoiding fracturing of trust between allied governments and the undermining of diplomats’ necessary assurance that they can do their job of reporting back to their government in confidence and with frankness and candour.

    It is absurd to suggest/implicitly assume that all diplomatic communications can/should be conducted in public and that there are no significant detriments involved.

  28. “If you are naturally trusting of the good intentions of government and are not afraid of the corrupting influence of power, then you do not want to curtail or embarrass the current holders of power because that would bind their hands further.”

    You are assuming that (a) I am naturally trusting of government; and (b) that there are no (or inadequate) checks and balances on government and the corrupting influence of power, such that an extreme anarchic transparency measure like Wikileaks mass document dumps is necessary and desirable. Neither assumption is correct.

    Australia has FOI; Ombudsman; AAT; anti-corruption commissions; oversight of the executive by Senate committees where the government of the day seldom has the numbers in its own right; constitutionally-entrenched independent judicial review of all executive government action; whistleblower legislation etc etc. Not to mention a fairly vigilant media (despite occasional blogosphere disparagement) which has already ventilated most of the issues the subject of Wikileaks “disclosures”. As I observed in relation to revelations of US diplomatic assessments of Rudd, all most of these “disclosures” do is provide titillating reinforcement of stuff we already know if we’ve been paying attention to current affairs. The titillation is provided by the fact that US government officials know the same things we know and sometimes express themselves bluntly about those things in private. Well, who’d have guessed?

    The position of the uncritical applauders of Wikileaks seems to be that we’re living in a corrupt society where the government runs rampant without any/adequate checks and balances, that this can be fixed by completely abolishing confidential government communications, and that confidential communication has no legitimate function and can be abolished without any real cost to the public interest. Perhaps you could try living in a glass-walled house in the middle of Brisbane for a while and then see if you still think that complete transparency is an unalloyed benefit.

  29. Ken,

    it is important not to personalise this. I am in no way questioning your intentions. We are simply having a difference of opinion on the level of openness that we regard as desirable and, reading the BBC website, it is clear that we are not the only ones in either camp.

    As to the substance of the matter, Rudd’s control freak nature was known amongst the literati, most certainly, and I credited it at the time with the primary reason he got booted out of office by his own party. As you will recall, many other theories about his demise were popular at the time and are still adhered to by some, such as that his demotion was related to the U-turn on climate change or some other policy issue. The revellations support the idea that policy was only the excuse to demote him, not the over-riding reason. The revellations also make it clearer what the tradeoff is that is being made by having Rudd as foreign secretary. I do see that as a matter of public interest, you dont. Fine.

    The notion that diplomatic deliberations should be kept secret so as to allow for frank discussions would sound true, if it werent for the disturbing fact that apparently over 850,000 Americans had access to these files. Hence if you are truly worried about the ability of diplomacy to do its work then your issue is not with wikileaks, but with the American administration that chose to share these secrets with so many that it is virtually inconceivable that any major interest party would not have already been aware of all the issues relevant to it. Indeed, wikileaks seems to have gone through great lenghts to tell the rest of the world much less detail than is open to a million others. To depict wikileaks in those circumstances as an irresponsible anarchist wrecking machine is simply not fair.

  30. Ken – I’m interested to know what sort of information or communication needs to be kept confidential for a government to function.

    I realise people (myslef included) have become very accustomed to being kept in the dark, or openly lied to, but I’m struggling to imagine a case where having access to the truth of the matter would be anything but an improvement.

  31. “Hence if you are truly worried about the ability of diplomacy to do its work then your issue is not with wikileaks, but with the American administration that chose to share these secrets with so many that it is virtually inconceivable that any major interest party would not have already been aware of all the issues relevant to it.”

    Yes I made that point at #16 above:

    “However that certainly doesn’t mean Assange should be charged, demonised or assassinated(!!!). What it DOES mean is that the Americans should get their house in order ASAP and tighten up on security so that mass document dumps simply cannot occur. It is said that up to 2 million people potentially had access to the Wikileaks dumped documents, which is just absurd.”

    There is an awful lot of hyperbole surrounding this issue. For instance Crikey today begins its newsletter with this breathlessly silly observation:

    What we are witnessing is nothing less than a fundamental shift in the relationship between information and power. WikiLeaks has changed the game.

    What a load of crap. What we’re witnessing is the short-term wash-up from the fact that the Americans opened up access to government documents to a much wider class of public servants in the wake of 9/11, apparently in the belief that this would assist preparedness to observe and counter terrorist operations. One would suspect they’ve now realised it was a stupid idea and are as we speak busily drastically restricting access to information and making sure that they can track everyone who accesses an even low classification confidential document. No doubt they will also beef up offence provisions so that leakers can (a) be readily identified and (b) be severely punished.

    Wikileaks is a silly season sideshow that won’t be repeated once the Americans get their document security system back in order. Unfortunately it’s very likely that LEGITIMATE (in a public interest sense) leaker access to material that really DOES reveal government malfeasance (which hardly any of this stuff does) will become collateral damage in the process. That’s why I commented in my own post the other day that Assange had “certainly succeeded in setting the cause of public sector whistleblowing back by a decade or more.”. If you don’t believe me I’m happy for you to wait and see how the US and other countries react. If anyone seriously thinks that any government is going to tolerate having all its confidential diplomatic communications plastered all over the media, they’re dreaming!!

  32. Pingback: Club Troppo » The wikileaks saga continued

  33. I thought it a reasonable question FDB, I had thought that our newly coalesced government were going to be more open about all those previously commissioned reports.

  34. FDB

    Sorry I’ve been busy doing other stuff. My answer in general terms should be obvious if you’ve been reading my comments to date. Prima facie I think ALL internal government diplomatic communications should remain confidential and be legally protected as such. However, it should be possible under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) to seek access, in which case a weighing exercise would be undertaken by an independent person (at federal level in Australia that is the Information Commissioner) whose job would be to balance the competing public interests militating in favour of disclosure and non-disclosure respectively and reach a decision binding on the government.

    At present that sort of weighing occurs with government claims for exemption from disclosure for “internal working documents” or “deliberative processes”. See section 47C. Also see section 31A (access to conditionally exempt documents) and section 11B (public interest exemptions – factors). Section 3 (Objects–general) and section 3A (Objects–information or documents otherwise accessible) are also worth examining to get an overall idea of how the FOI scheme works. Incidentally this is the newly reformed Act following significant liberalising amendments made by the Labor government and sponsored by John Faulkner.

    However, in addition to the general deliberative processes conditional exemption, there is a separate exemption category for documents affecting national security, defence or international relations (section 33). Documents under that exemption item are “exempt” rather than “conditionally exempt” and so the Information Commissioner has no power to engage in a weighing exercise or order disclosure. See section 55L. I would favour making this class of documents “conditionally exempt” so that the independent Information Commissioner has the power to weigh competing public interests and order disclosure where appropriate. However, the Wikileaks saga makes any such further liberalising amendment extremely unlikely.

  35. Ken – thanks, but I was more interested in a general idea of what you think should be kept secret from any population by its government, than a rundown of how different security levels are currently determined in Australia.

    In the case of ongoing military strategy/tactics, there is an obvious need for secrecy, and in many cases a criminal invesigation can only effectively proceed without the knowledge of the suspect, but beyond these I’m at a bit of a loss.

    I’m sure a complete removal of secrecy would have terminal implications for the way we are currently governed, but that’s a different thing.

  36. FDB

    I don’t think there is any Public Interest in having open access to confidential diplomatic communications. However there may be a stronger countervailing Public Interest in disclosure where those or other documents reveal/suggest significant government misdeeds. Long-time blogger Roger Migently lists (from Glenn Greenwald) quite a few disclosures from the present Wikileaks mass document dumps that DO seem to reveal significant government misdeeds and in respect of which the public interest in disclosure might persuasively be argued to outweigh the public interest in confidentiality of internal or inter-governmental communications.

    As I indicated in my previous comment, I think the FOI Act provides a workable mechanism whereby such a Public Interest balancing exercise should be undertaken (although how it could practically be applied to an organisation like Wikileaks, which is beyond effective public law accountabilty once leaks have occurred, I just don’t know).

    Web 2.0 guru Clay Shirky elegantly expresses my view on the issue of principle:

    Like a lot of people, I am conflicted about Wikileaks.

    Citizens of a functioning democracy must be able to know what the state is saying and doing in our name, to engage in what Pierre Rosanvallon calls “counter-democracy”*, the democracy of citizens distrusting rather than legitimizing the actions of the state. Wikileaks plainly improves those abilities.

    On the other hand, human systems can’t stand pure transparency. For negotiation to work, people’s stated positions have to change, but change is seen, almost universally, as weakness. People trying to come to consensus must be able to privately voice opinions they would publicly abjure, and may later abandon. Wikileaks plainly damages those abilities. (If Aaron Bady’s analysis is correct, it is the damage and not the oversight that Wikileaks is designed to create.*)

    And so we have a tension between two requirements for democratic statecraft, one that can’t be resolved, but can be brought to an acceptable equilibrium. Indeed, like the virtues of equality vs. liberty, or popular will vs. fundamental rights, it has to be brought into such an equilibrium for democratic statecraft not to be wrecked either by too much secrecy or too much transparency.

    As Tom Slee puts it, “Your answer to ‘what data should the government make public?’ depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about the government.”* My personal view is that there is too much secrecy in the current system, and that a corrective towards transparency is a good idea. I don’t, however, believe in total transparency, and even more importantly, I don’t think that independent actors who are subject to no checks or balances is a good idea in the long haul.

  37. Pingback: The wikileaks saga continued : Core Economics

  38. Disregard this if I have missed something, but in your first paragraph you write that Wikileaks has released hundreds of thousands of documents, then buried in the comments you state (correctly) that only a small fraction of the cables were published by wikileaks after being redacted and published by the press. Why,if you know the facts , haven’t you amended your original post to reflect that truth after twenty days? Your original post is referenced elsewhere leaving a false impression which happens to assist those who would destroy Assange,

  39. theotherjimmyolson,

    partly semantics, partly etiquette. Wikileaks had released the whole set of cables in a sense in that they had made encrypted versions available to the wider public. I also understood they had some kind of arrangement with some newspaper who would have access to more unencrypted files and could do their own scanning. I hence made the somewhat artifical (and probably not rigorously enforced) distinction between released and published.

    I try not to change substantive things about posts, even if I find out I missed something or got something wrong (like the copyright thing). It messes up the comment trail to change things (comments then relate to things no longer in the post) and it creates the false impression of omniscience on the part of the blogger. I dont mind if people see my mistakes. Its an incentive to be more careful next time.

  40. Pingback: Julian Assange de WikiLeaks : Héros ou scélérat de l’Australie ? | JusticeAvenue

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