Why was this stuff “top secret” in the first place?

It’s been amazing to find how trivial a lot of the “top secret” material released by Wikileaks has been – begging the question: why was it “top secret” in the first place?

Or, as Mungo Macallum put it in Monday’s Crikey:

The zealots who are demanding the head of Julian Assange on a platter tell us that the revelations have placed lives at risk and have compromised the security of nations, but they have supplied absolutely no evidence for either claim. It would appear that most of the cables were stamped “secret” or “confidential” almost as a matter of reflex; there is nothing in them to justify the classification.

It is further proof, if proof were needed, that even democratically elected governments become addicted to control for its own sake. In a free and open society the availability of information should be the default position; it is not a matter of the public’s right to know, which should be a given, but of the government having to justify any restriction of that right.

It is not enough for the punishers and the straighteners, as Manning Clark christened them, to parrot slogans such as “national security” and “operational matters” and “commercial in confidence” in order to suppress what they would prefer not to discuss. They should be compelled to demonstrate that the disclosure would do actual harm. The right to personal privacy is one thing, but the curtailing of public debate by withholding the relevant facts is another entirely.

Talking heads trying to downplay the Wikileaks achievement by asking “who cares?” about the content of the revelations have precisely missed the point: their often trivial nature despite the levels of security applied to them shows just exactly how paranoid and absurd the modern state has become. It has been abusing the power with which we’ve entrusted it to the extent necessary to secure the business of state, instead to cover up its own embarrassing stuff-ups – both damaging the public’s democratic right to know what its representatives are doing, and also the credibility of the security apparatus on which its agents must depend.

6 responses to “Why was this stuff “top secret” in the first place?

  1. Governments are becoming over secretive and at the same time, they are prying into our lives more everyday. There should be access to all information except that necessary for national security. The government should have to justify any information that is identified as confidential. It is important that innocence until proven guilty is the basis of our justice system. I wonder how the Americans can be comfortable with charged people appearing in court in prison garb and chains. How can the authorities in Britain justify keeping someone who has not been charged with a crime in isolation and with limited access to their legal representatives. How can they justify censoring tier mail or limiting phone calls? How can any country have the right to freeze bank accounts worldwide without seeking permission from the courts? How can we accept locking people up for many years and denying them access to the courts?

  2. Is anyone else impressed by Rudd’s handling of this?

    No Australian politician has been more embarrassed by the revelations in these cables than him, yet he has come out swinging on behalf of Assange and Wikileaks.

    It’s probably true that he’s motivated at least in part by a desire to show Gillard up as a an idiot, but still . . .

  3. Mondo, spite often drives people to greatness. As well as p___ing off a ton of people along the way.

    In this case, spite may be driving Rudd to genuine nobility, and I am impressed. Having said that, he’s not the attorney-general or the PM, so…

  4. Splatterbottom

    Rudd’s initial reaction to Assange was to prosecute him: “the Australian Government will do all within its power within the remit of Australian laws to deal with those responsible. “

    Since Rudd was deposed by Gillard, he has become more blatant in speaking out of both sides of his mouth, telling different audiences what they want to hear. No wonder he is gaining respect in certain circles.

  5. 1. Not Top Secret – just Secret. Big difference. The system the leak came from didn’t go to Top Secret. It’s especially important in this context as the distinction really kicks in at that threshold – this stuff was avalable precisely because it was at the “pleb” end of the spectrum.

    2. But yeah, it’s a recognised problem. Speaking as a person who deals in classified material, I hear over-classification being complained about frequently. The guidelines are so flexible on what needs which classification, it usually comes down to you work-area’s culture and/or your own ability to manage up.

    It’s really easy to classify something highly, and a pain in the arse to bring it back down. Most importantly: you can get in massive trouble for classifying something too low, but never more than a grumpy-face for classifying it too highly. Since anyone up the chain could have one of those over-classification complexes, people tend to chicken out and go with the highest-common-denominator.

    A lot of people stick to their guns, but not everyone can stand up to idiots every day, and they take the easier path.

    So in my experience: not a conspiracy by governments, but rather a function of beaurocracy.

  6. Very interesting, ST.

    I’m not actually sure about the classifications in question since presumably they’d be using a US system, not the Australian one – where the US cables “secret” as opposed to “top secret” or was it something else? Were they all from the same low level?

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