Lowy Institute

Debate: WikiLeaks

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For people who value freedom and truth, what's not to applaud about WikiLeaks? Certainly in Australia, the cablegate saga – and its local offshoot – has unlocked a tide of libertarian righteousness.

Throughout the media and much of civil society, there's a thrill of surprise at the unsaintly ways and words of diplomacy, a frisson of satisfaction at seeing the powerful humbled and exposed, and a current of outrage on behalf of Julian Assange.

All this is muddled with some less noble impulses, including the voyeuristic buzz of reading a lot of other people's mail. And if your business is to sell newspapers, there is also the rare joy of finding a new lease on relevance and profit. (The commercial motive for certain Australian newspapers' sensational treatment of the story would be less distasteful if they were also willing to follow the example of The Guardian and publish the quoted cables in full so that readers could draw their own conclusions, or to release them in large numbers rather than dribble them out over the notoriously slow summer news season. If the public really needs to know, then there's no time like the present and no reason we should not see the original documents.)

But beyond the melodrama and moralising, what matters are the consequences. Of course it would be grand if the result was some kind of hyper-catharsis of universal transparency, peace and justice. Yet what if the effects tend in the opposite direction? Any comprehensive analysis of the 2010 cablegate conspiracy will need to consider whether it will be:

Bad for diplomacy and international cooperation: More than ever, most of the world's problems demand cooperative responses. And until human nature changes or nations wither, this will need a combination of private frankness and public tact between governments. Sometimes secrecy is a condition for trust and honesty, not its enemy. It would be nice to imagine cablegate as the dawn of a new diplomacy which has no place for discretion or deception. It is more realistic to conclude that the old games of statecraft will resume in new ways, with the chessboard temporarily shaken up.

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Bad for the US and its allies, good for China and Russia: The leak of 250,000 US cables will do more harm to Washington and its democratic allies in Asia and Europe than to authoritarian-leaning powers. It will neither precipitate some miracle of complete openness by Western governments nor encourage China or Russia to move a millimetre in that direction. But it will weaken the US and its allies in their ability to coordinate with and trust one another while trying to manage the risks arising from a changing global balance of power. For instance, the leaking of a cable spelling out sensitive US-NATO nuclear discussions is really defensible only if equivalent Chinese and Russian secret memos are going online any time soon – and it is interesting that The Guardian has already had second thoughts, taking the nuclear cable off its website. Casual readers might find many of the leaked cables underwhelming, but collectively they are an intelligence gift to America's rivals, including for the gaps they reveal in Washington's intelligence collection.

Bad for cohesion in the democratic world: Complex global relationships of trust and transaction – spanning the private and public spheres – are being damaged as WikiLeaks' supporters and opponents wage the world's first prolonged cyber conflict, involving hackers, corporations and governments. This is a virtual struggle being waged almost exclusively within the Western world, a cyber civil war.  

Bad for freedom of information: Officials will find it harder to access their own government's classified documents. Indeed, the more sensitive workings of policy and diplomacy in Western countries may regress to become the preserve of a small number of individuals, with increased reliance on personal channels like emails and phone conversations and less information recorded in formal documents. After the intelligence failures of 9/11, there was a push towards information-sharing between agencies and allies; this will now face fresh scrutiny and a probable rollback. (Mind you, a system in which a 23-year-old soldier can download a hoard of sensitive cables was a disaster waiting to happen.)

Restrictions on providing sensitive information to the media and the public could well be tightened. Australian diplomats already have a tough time accessing cables written by their colleagues. Right now American (and I suspect Australian) officials are ridiculously not even allowed to use their office computers to access the leaked trove, even though there is a strong national interest in their knowing precisely what is out there. This is a sign of the unfortunate information clampdown to come.

Bad for diplomats and good for spooks: In a complex and globalised world, flexible, well-resourced – and, yes, relatively transparent – diplomatic services are needed more than ever. Yet as diplomatic networks, trust and access to information dry up, foreign ministries could become even less effective and adaptive.

One entity that stands to benefit at their expense is clandestine intelligence agencies. Since 9/11, Western foreign services have lost resources and influence relative to their secret cousins. In Australia, the DFAT budget has declined while those of ASIS, ASIO and DSD have shot up. If diplomatic information channels become less trusted, governments may place even more emphasis on the truly hidden empire of covert intelligence-gathering, which is less leak-prone but worse value for money (and often less useful) than normal diplomatic reporting.

A new world of large-scale diplomatic leaks will also mean extra duties for counter-intelligence players, like the FBI and ASIO. This will help boost their budgets, but will also be a damaging diversion of their capabilities, since they already have plenty of threats to manage in an age of terrorism and great-power tensions.

Bad for peacemakers: Vicious conflicts are rarely resolved purely through open negotiation. Civil and communal wars, in particular, end only when leaders are willing to break with the violent extremists on their own side by holding talks with their enemies – and such talk must begin in secret if the leaders want to survive to round two. The successful Northern Ireland peace process of the 1990s, for example, would never have stood a chance in a cablegate world.

Bad for journalism: For some mainstream media organisations, cablegate seems better than a goldmine: every day a new nugget, no digging needed. Yet by being so closely co-opted in treating indiscriminate leaks as headline news, day after day, parts of the old media risk hastening their own marginalisation and further dulling their already-diminished investigative faculties.

Moreover, such organisations are wading into new ethical and legal grey areas, which may yet ensnare them. For a start, how do the laws of defamation (or copyright) apply to material from leaked diplomatic cables? It is also at the very least a double-standard not to remove the names of individual diplomats and their contacts from news stories based on leaked cables, when journalists themselves assert a right to protect off-record sources. 

Bad for Obama and those who put faith in him: Wikileaks and its supporters are further damaging the most internationalist US Administration they will see in their lifetimes. This may turn out to be an own goal by part of the global liberal left. Wikileaks is fanning patriotic anger in America, and this will translate into political capital for the Republican right. 

Bad for Australia's Gillard Government: The Labor minority government is fragile, and the localised cablegate game being played by Australia's centre-left Fairfax broadsheets will carve fresh rifts and reopen old ones, whether between the foreign minister and prime minister, Labor's left and right wings, and Labor and its Green/independent partners.

Of course, these are preliminary and highly speculative judgments, and on at least some of them I hope to be entirely wrong.


Stephen Collins is an open government advocate and board member of Electronic Frontiers Australia. He is the founder of communications consultancy acidlabs.

Yesterday's piece by Rory Medcalf seems to rely on a particular assumption — that we choose to let the way we've always done things remain the way we do them into the future.

There is an alternative. We can adopt a new worldview where we allow acts such as Cablegate to become the catalyst for change and we renew diplomacy, change journalism and open up government. After all, last week saw the first anniversary of the Obama Administration's Open Government Directive and our own Prime Minister made similar statements about the openness of her administration after this year's federal election, following on from the Declaration of Open Government earlier in the year. Let's walk the talk.

So, to look at a number of Rory's conclusions.

Bad for diplomacy and international cooperation: What if statecraft was changed? What if public diplomacy became the norm? Certainly, behind-closed-doors conversations need to take place at times. But what if this exposure of the inner workings of international diplomacy was an opportunity to remake statecraft where deception and misdirection were anathema?

Bad for cohesion in the democratic world: Rory conflates the illegal and, frankly, idiotic actions of a few script kiddies with the more sensible supporters of the kind of openness WikiLeaks and Julian Assange argue for. The 'First Cyber War', as some have declared it, is problematic, but it will go away as the juveniles become bored. I struggle to see how Rory's declaration about cohesion and the argument he makes are related.

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Bad for freedom of information: A real issue. There is a culture of over-classification among many Western governments, including our own. Yet the wholesale changes wrought on our FoI system, the introduction of the Information Commissioner and the powerful push for open licensing of public sector information will make unnecessary classification progressively more difficult.

No doubt, there will be abuses, but if those seeking information and those administering it play fair, we will end up in a measurably better position than we were before. With more a more open view of the way government works, citizen satisfaction with how informed they are could act as a deterrent to unwanted information exposures.

Bad for peacemakers: Current Western practice in peacekeeping and peace-building operations, which has largely consisted of dropping in pre-packaged democratic models tied up with a bow, has been a disaster. More than one internationally recognised authority, including David Kilcullen and the Folke Bernadotte Academy in Sweden, are critical of this approach, preferring activity that more closely aligns with direct local population needs and rebuilds governance through more open collaborations. This is a major change in outlook, and one which is yet to see broad adoption, but is realising real successes. Open peace-building can and does work, though there's no question that it's difficult and still requires a level of confidentiality.

Bad for journalism: Absolutely not. The mainstream media, with a few notable exceptions, enjoys its proximity to power and is often overwhelmed by it. In a world where a new journalism exists — one where truth can be told and separated from the ugly symbiosis between politics and journalism — we will be in a far better place; one where the Fourth Estate reasserts its place as a limiting factor on disingenuousness and deception by otherwise democratic governments.

More than this, we may finally see the end of the interminable arguments over just what constitutes journalism in our hyperconnected world. Perhaps the old media will realise they are simply a part of the picture and that fine journalism is being done by people with subject expertise everywhere, but whose work sees them outside the traditional media environment.

Bad for Obama: Short term pain, I think. Yes, the Administration is far more internationalist than recent others, and yes, they have a black eye over this. But why? More than anything it's because the man who preached 'Change' and 'Yes we can' has largely proven to be more of the same. The cable leaks are more opportunity than cost; an opportunity to shake up Washington as promised and remake US politics.

Bad for the Gillard Government: Certainly for the PM, who is yet to withdraw her foolish declaration of illegality against Assange and Wikileaks. With a growing number of voices in Australian politics and society lining up to support the rule of law in Assange's case, there is hope that he will get fair treatment in any court that chooses to charge him with respect to these leaks — something that is yet to happen in spite of speculation that a Grand Jury has been empanelled in Virginia to do just such a thing.

Like Rory, my thoughts are speculative. I hope he is wrong and I am right. I hope that the matters WikiLeaks has brought to light in 2010 are a catalyst for change and not a trigger for a lockdown.


Having just published Stephen Collins' reply to Rory's post, I'm going to pile on and offer my own critique.

But first let me point out that we have already received a number of emails from the bureaucracy and diplomatic community in support of Rory's position. Unfortunately, these were marked 'not for publication', so I want to encourage those readers in Canberra who feel constrained by saying that we are prepared to put aside this site's usual reluctance to publish anonymous comment.

So, to business, and I want to start by agreeing with Stephen Collins' introduction, and to put the case more explicitly: I think Rory is showing status quo bias. He is absolutely right to say that 'most of the world's problems demand cooperative responses', and that a certain level of secrecy is required to make this workable. But what level, exactly? Rory seems to assume that the pre-WikiLeaks level of secrecy was just the right one, and that Assange's organisation has busted open an arrangement that was working pretty well for world peace. I'm not at all certain that's right.

But even if Rory is right, that ship has sailed, and governments will have to learn how to cope in a WikiLeaked world. How are they doing so far? Rory is probably right that the leaked cables will just encourage governments to tighten security, and that this, in turn, will impede good policy and diplomacy. But another way of expressing this is to say that WikiLeaks is goading governments into taking self-defeating and counterproductive action.

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How best to avoid this? One way is to shut down WikiLeaks, though that seems unlikely to succeed, and would just open up territory for imitators. So here's an alternative suggestion for the governments of the world: stop taking self-defeating and counterproductive action. Rather than tighten security in response to these leaks, why not loosen it? Instead of investing more in spooks and less in diplomats, as Rory thinks will happen, why not adapt to this new reality by shifting away from the presumption in favour of secrecy?

Maybe this would make life easier for the West's rivals. But the 'intelligence gifts' to America's rivals that Rory sees in the Wikileaks cables are tactical victories.

You can draw an analogy with the free trade debate. Opponents of free trade often make the 'level playing field' argument — there's no sense putting our own economy at risk by lowering tariff barriers if the other side won't reciprocate. Clearly it would be better if tariff protection was lowered all around, and it would be preferable if China's political system was just as transparent as America's. But whether the other side reciprocates or not, we can be strengthened when the barriers to the free flow of information and goods are lowered.

As to whether WikiLeaks is 'bad for journalism', I should say so! After all, WikiLeaks has comprehensively scooped the mainstream media. But let's be clear what Rory is talking about when he refers to 'journalism'. He's talking about a profession that is traditionally practiced inside a newspaper or TV station. But journalism is not solely a profession, it is an activity, and increasingly it can be practiced by anyone.

I would also like to hear more from Rory about what makes the WikiLeaks cables so special. The media has always trafficked in leaks, so if this one is so damaging, where does that leave the practice of leaking? Is all leaking bad?

My guess is that Rory's reply would have something to do with the 'indiscriminate' nature of WikiLeaks. But as Fergus just pointed out, only a tiny percentage of WikiLeaks' cables have been released so far, and its been done in consultation with major newspapers, who advised on any redactions that were thought necessary. WikiLeaks and the NY Times even sought State Department help for the redactions.

To close, I want to extend the free trade analogy a little. One of the greatest barriers to economic liberalisation is the fact that its victims are highly concentrated and vocal, and tend to be politically powerful. By contrast, the benefits of a free economy, while pretty overwhelming, are quite diffuse, so liberalisation does not have a strong political or lobbying base.

For instance, when a government proposes to lower farm tariffs, you will see farmers marching in the street and lots of sympathetic media coverage. But you won't see counter-rallies by consumers demanding that the government drop tariffs so that a litre of milk is 10 cents cheaper — after all, it's only 10 cents. Yet when multiplied by 22 million milk consumers, that 10 cents represents a huge efficiency gain across the economy. It's just that no single individual is likely to notice the difference.

Something similar is true for information. I'm sure Rory is absolutely right that the Northern Ireland peace process would not have survived a WikiLeaks dump, and those who are invested in the current system of classification will come up with lots of specific cases where leaks have caused damage.

By contrast, the case for greater freedom of information is more diffuse and less dramatic. Yes, the Daniel Ellsberg and Deep Throat examples demonstrate that leaks can have specific public benefits, but that may not be the main point. The more mundane but important point is that free citizens ought to have a really good idea of what governments are doing in their name. No specific piece of information will be transformative, but in sum the health of our society is enhanced when they know more.

It bothers me that, in his introduction, Rory's apparently sincere reference to the value of 'freedom and truth' transforms, in the very same sentence, into 'libertarian righteousness'. There clearly are people (and Julian Assange may be among them) who take pleasure in just 'sticking it to the man', but it is surely possible to take some satisfaction from the release of the WikiLeaks cables without resorting to such undergraduate anti-authoritarianism.

You don't have to be an anarchist to be in favour of greater transparency, just as you don't need to be an authoritarian to appreciate the need for occasional secrecy.

Photo by Flickr user John Kannenberg.


I would add a few points to Rory's excellent first cut at WikiLeaks' implications for the international system:

1. The randomness of the State Department dump is disturbing. Such a disclosure will inevitably have some good consequences; it will also have many evil ones. US contacts will be identified by security services that are less fussy about human rights than the FBI or the Justice Department. Peace processes will be compromised. Representatives of civil society in harsh places will be less willing to speak with foreign diplomats.

I have no confidence that Julian Assange and his anonymous colleagues have exercised their duty of care to maximise the good and minimise the evil. Mr Assange's scary Orwellian diktats to his browbeaten colleagues reveal that robust, collaborative internal decision-making processes are foreign to WikiLeaks.

2. The rationale for the dump is incoherent. What is the justification for dropping a quarter of a million cables, from diplomatic missions all over the world, on every topic under the sun? It's one thing for a whistleblower to expose a particular piece of information relating to one abuse of power: even that is a serious act entailing a very heavy responsibility.

But with this dump WikiLeaks is not uncovering a particular secret; it is outlawing secrets altogether.

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Does Mr Assange really believe no-one is entitled to secrets? Would the world be safer, saner or more pleasant if nothing could be held in confidence? How could wars be averted in such a world? How could peace negotiations take place? Would news sources talk to journalists? Would business be done and jobs created? Could families enjoy each other's company? (I wonder whether the recent posting of Mr Assange's online dating profile will alter his view that transparency must trump every other right and every other interest. I will not link to the profile because I believe people have a right to privacy.)

3. It seems that Mr Assange has something against diplomacy. During the Bush Administration's years, especially in its first term, the left was rightly critical of George W Bush's over-reliance on military force. Now WikiLeaks is setting out to punish Washington for pursuing its aims through peaceful means — and undermining those peaceful means in the future. Thanks Julian, but I'd take the late Richard Holbrooke over you any day.

4. The playing field WikiLeaks has established is not a level one. It is much easier to steal information from open, democratic societies than from closed, authoritarian ones. WikiLeaks has hinted about future Russian leaks, but so far the vast preponderance of material is American in origin. Therefore the world sees the frailties of US diplomacy in much sharper focus than that that of, say, China or Iran. Do US diplomats look good in every exchange on which they report? No. But WikiLeaks doesn't allow us to compare them fairly to their foreign counterparts.

5. Even though WikiLeaks has rigged the game against the Americans, they don't come out of it as badly as you might think (and as Mr Assange doubtless hoped). If you squint your eyes and look at the totality of the information released so far, it turns out that the international problems about which Washington complains (for example, the Iranian nuclear program) are real and dangerous; that other capitals broadly agree with this; and that the American diplomats who are trying to address these problems often get little assistance from the rest of the world, including from those who egg them on privately. In other words, despite its clear intentions, WikiLeaks undercuts the view that America is arrogant, unilateral and bellicose.

I can't deny that WikiLeaks is fascinating. For a foreign policy think tank, it's great for business. Though many of the documents tell us nothing new, some are genuinely interesting and enlightening. Yet none of this takes away from the essential recklessness of WikiLeaks' conduct.

Even a sick tree can bear fruit. But we shouldn't pretend that the tree is healthy.

Photo by Flickr user Night Owl City.


Chris Dellit responds to Rory Medcalf's post:

A very comprehensive overview of the Wiki-leaks impact. There is a lot of self-righteous psychology within the gatekeepers of this material. How can such a small group think clearly about such a complex bundle of issues and how to deal with them? The cat is out of the bag.

I assume the 'small group' Chris refers to here is WikiLeaks and collaborators such as The Guardian, New York Times and Sydney Morning Herald. Both Chris and Michael Fullilove are quite right to distrust their expertise and motivations in releasing this material.

But the corollary of this view is that such decisions are instead best left to people in government, who are qualified to make judgments about this 'complex bundle of issues'. And I think anyone with an ounce of realism about the behaviour of governments would realise that this is an equally untenable solution. Governments are apt to hide embarrassing information and sometimes even lie to protect themselves; we cannot expect them to act transparently at their own cost. That's why we have a free press.


Below, Scott Burchill responds to Rory Medcalf's post. Scott has assisted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's legal team with political advice and the translation of Swedish court documents:

The cables are NOT private correspondence. They are not even owned by their authors. In democracies, they are owned by the people. Trainee diplomats are told at the very beginning of their careers to expect their utterances to be read in the future by researchers, archivists and the public via FOI requests. Diplomatic communications are for official not private correspondence, all of which is paid for by the citizens.

We should assess the appropriate levels of diplomatic transparency primarily against our own standards of public accountability, rather than what may or may not favour other, authoritarian states. There is a strong argument that greater openness from us will help our rivals and competitors understand us better, avoiding confusion and misunderstandings of our motives and behaviour. There is a lot of zero-sum, binary thinking in conclusions which imply we shouldn't do anything decent if it confers advantage on other states.

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WikiLeaks is a consequence of an absence of 'complex global relationships of trust and transaction', not a cause of their demise. Without existing levels of mistrust and suspicion surrounding government, WikiLeaks would have no market.

WikiLeaks will only be 'bad for freedom of information' if we allow people who work for us to conceal information from us. The assumption here is of an unaccountable state we have little or no influence over. We had better behave or they won't tell us anything! This is the picture of an authoritarian state, not a liberal democracy. We set the rules governing the transparency of our bureaucracies. If they aren't working properly we can change them.

Frankly, if our diplomats come to rely more heavily on open sources, we will be much better off. Having said that, the suggestions that diplomatic communications will collapse after WikiLeaks and that diplomats will no longer trade in gossip, are risible. Remarkably little will change.

Before it can be claimed that WikiLeaks is bad for peacemaking and would have stymied settlements such as the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s, an a priori question should be posed. How many intractable conflicts in the world have been prolonged by an absence of diplomatic transparency? Many, including the 'Irish problem', one would suspect. Diplomacy is used to perpetuate conflicts and to resolve them. Any cost-benefit analysis of WikiLeaks must consider both sides of this argument, not just the peacemaking angle.

If mainstream journalism is being marginalised by WikiLeaks – and I'd suggest it is – this is because it hasn't been doing it's job well enough. The old cosy relationship between journalists and the state has not served us well, even though they are actually helping WikiLeaks in this instance. Why is the status quo so good? Why must it be protected from competition?

People shouldn't put 'faith' in political leaders. That's just infantile. Judge them by their actions. If these revelations are good for the right or left, so be it. Let the public decide in light of the fullest possible disclosure of information. If the cables reveal discord between the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, we should know now, instead of finding out in a decade when Paul Kelly publishes his next 'insiders' tome.

There is an underlying fear of the public in these conclusions, as if they can't be trusted with information about their own government. Not very democratic in sentiment.


I thought both Rory and Michael delivered some plausible arguments about the potential downsides of WikiLeaks. I've also heard sensible-sounding arguments elsewhere about why this has all been pretty problematic in a range of ways.

Despite all this good sense, however, I still find myself a bit uncomfortable about where most of those arguments would seem to end up, and even more so, about some of the underlying assumptions. Part of Scott Burchill's recent response comes close to capturing the source of my discomfort.

In my naïve model of how a democratic system works, policymakers – politicians and public servants – are the employees of the voting public. They work for us. 

Now, I can understand why, in some particular circumstances, their working for us might involve them having to keep things from us in our own best interest. Previous entries in this debate have given some good examples as to why this might be the case. But as a general position, I find the idea that our employees get to decide when and whether we are to be trusted with information a strange and uncomfortable one. Surely the starting point should be that we have access to most information and that it's only the very special cases where we don't?

The key issue, then, is getting the balance right between the special cases where information is restricted, and the rest of the time. Given the way politics and institutions in general tend to work, my strong suspicion is that the actual prevailing equilibrium is one which ends up delivering much less freedom of information than would an optimum equilibrium that balanced, in an unbiased manner, the need/right to know against other factors. 

If that's true, then information outbreaks like WikiLeaks – for all of the very real problems with the current case – are probably an inevitable response to, and corrective for, the inherent bias of our employees towards giving us too little information. Like Sam, I find myself inclined towards the benefits of transparency – much as I do in other contexts.

Photo by Flickr user country_boy_shane.


Andrew McCredie writes:

Mark Thirlwell and Scott Burchill make sound points about the value of transparency. WikiLeaks reveals as much about the authors of the cables as it does about the content. The discipline of transparency promotes fairness, balance and accuracy – surely a sounder basis for diplomacy than the meretricious reporting revealed in the WikiLeaks cables.


As a former Army officer, I'm predisposed to view the release of secret documents during wartime as a traitorous crime. Like Stephen Colbert in this excellent dissection, I thought the WikiLeaks publicity campaign around the film 'Collateral Murder' was despicable for its rash editorialising and lack of contextual appreciation.

The cablegate leaks have softened my position because, as a diplomacy outsider, I am fascinated by the voyeurism of it all. I can see the value in knowing the duplicity of Kevin Rudd's views on Afghanistan. It's reassuring to know that the US Embassy shares the concerns I have about the fanciful budgeting behind the 2009 Defence White Paper.

Last week we asked the Lowy Institute's Twitter followers to make sense of WikiLeaks: Is Julian Assange a #wikihero or #wikivillain? Eighty percent of responses were in Julian Assange's favour.

Some of the Twitter posts were revealing. @thewinchesterau commented that Assange was 'Exposing corruption & hidden agendas, shining lights in areas of the world where it's desperately needed'. @aireys also commented on this theme: 'The world has now changed. US is confused, pollies exposed and the people unite against all the corruption and lies. Well done JA.' @alecthegeek phrased it as a simple dichotomy: 'What sort of society will we bequeath to future? Truly open & participatory; or closed &controlled by gov and corp?'.

What struck me is how few people are likely to be swayed from their initial instinctive response on WikiLeaks. The crux of the issue seems to be how you feel about government – if you feel positively about the work governments do, then you hate WikiLeaks. If you have concerns about the way governments operate, then WikiLeaks is the salve to a wounded trust.

Photo by Flickr user Natasha Friis Saxberg.


Hackers like Julian Assange and many of his supporters have no patience.

In the hacker mindset, a single clever individual is pitted against a complex system designed to keep them out. The hacker wins if he can spot a flaw in the complex system and exploit it. End of game. Outcomes, like the systems used in the hacker's world, are binary. You either win or the big bad complex system defeats you. Hackers want to believe that government and its minions are involved in obfuscation and that they have been somehow excluded from the decision-making process.

How many of these hackers have ever applied to join DFAT, the ADF, or our intelligence agencies? How many have ever run for political office? How many have involved themselves in the painstaking and lengthy process of fact-checking and background research that sets proper investigative journalism above the stolen-information fencing that WikiLeaks represents?

What sets democracies apart is that anyone can apply to work for government or be a politician and have an equal chance of being successful. But it takes patience, hard work, and an ability to work with others. Hackers want quick results for little investment, and they work alone.

As Sam mentioned earlier, the voices absent from this debate are the thousands of Australians working in government agencies. They are prevented from commenting on WikiLeaks – but more importantly, they're getting on with the business of government. Democratic governments like those in Australia and the US won't always get everything right but at least they're trying to build society in ways that are complex and take time. Thoughtless destruction of complex systems helps no one but the hackers themselves.

Photo by Flickr user José Goulão.


Stephen Collins is an open government advocate and board member of Electronic Frontiers Australia. He is the founder of communications consultancy acidlabs.

I have a great deal of respect for the Lowy Institute. But when one of their staff writes a fundamentally flawed, badly misinformed piece on hacker culture, it really is time to scratch one's head and ask why the viewpoint within public policy think tanks seems so narrow. I suspect it's to do with where they do their hiring — ex-military, ex-intelligence, ex-policy wonks, largely from a narrow set of fields. Their willingness to extend the set of viewpoints into the wider, progressive and non-insider arena seems to let them down.

James Brown's piece, 'Democracy and the hacker mentality', is so misinformed and fundamentally flawed, I have to wonder whether there's any research or fact-checking going on. Let me make an attempt at countering some of the misinformation Brown puts forth.

Brown first fails to understand what a hacker is. Perhaps he didn't bother to read the Hacker Manifesto (which would have taken all of a couple of minutes to find), the 1986 seminal document that forms the basis for ethical hacking. He conflates, by misunderstanding hacking, the actions of those who attack systems and organisations (what hackers would refer to as script kiddies) with a desire to better understand the world and what makes it tick.

He seems to think that those with a hacker mentality (to which I proudly raise my hand) aren't interested in working on the inside. Or hand-in-hand with government. Has he looked at Defence Signals Directorate lately? Or CERT Australia? I'm guessing those folks would be delighted to be tagged as (white hat) hackers.

Brown also fails to understand the true hacker mentality and its deep connections to open democracy and open government.

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Hacker culture is perhaps the most democratic I know. Authority and, for want of a better word, power, are accorded based on knowledge and ability, on capacity to work with others, rather than on any artificial organisational construct. Those with the hacker mentality are patient, highly cooperative, strong collaborators who seek to expand and share their knowledge, rather than people who 'want quick results for little investment, and they work alone'.

Many of those working at the forefront of open government, both as public servants and on the outside of the public sector, are possessed of a rich vein of the hacker mentality. They seek, through their insatiable curiosity, to chip away at the edges of a closed system and break the door ajar to enable the collaboration and cooperation of government with its citizenry.

Brown also seems to think that hacker culture is disinclined to thoroughness and fact-checking. In the context of his piece, this is an interesting assertion, given he gets so much wrong in so few words.

As to Brown's assertions that WikiLeaks is outside the world of journalism, somehow different to any other organisation which might get leaked information dropped on its lap, perhaps he is unfamiliar with the debate in the media sector on the rapidly changing nature of the journalist; how journalism is no longer limited to those who are employed by 'media outlets'. Perhaps he should talk to the ABC's Mark Scott, or NYU professor Jay Rosen, or look at the way progressive media outfits such as The Guardian and The Huffington Post are doing their work.

Brown's last paragraph shows he simply didn't bother to look about very hard. While many people working in and around government have been quiet on the matter of WikiLeaks, very many others in several forums have been quite vociferous, both in Australia and overseas. A simple search will reveal comment on blogs, in the traditional media, and in forums where public sector workers gather to discuss the issues they face in their work.

Perhaps James Brown would have done well to spend some time talking with a few people who understand the hacker culture?

Photo by Flickr user Ian Sane.


Ed. note: Last week I put out a call for readers in Canberra's national security community to write to us anonymously about WikiLeaks. Below is a response from someone we can only describe as a 'senior Canberra security insider'.

Rory Medcalf's Interpreter post on the real world fallout from WikiLeaks' so-called 'cablegate' is spot on. Sure, there may be some positive consequences along the way, but the broader impact will be overwhelmingly negative. It will make the job of national security harder, and more expensive. Lives will be unnecessarily put at risk.

One of the greatest contemporary challenges for agencies involved in national security (the number of which is growing) has been information sharing. The events of 11 September 2001 were avoidable if the right information had reached the right people at the right time. And as if we needed a reminder, it was only last year on Christmas Day that Northwest Airlines Flight 253 avoided by only the narrowest of margins being bombed out of the sky over the US. It was another incident that could have been prevented if information had been shared adequately, and acted upon.

So how do government agencies and their people now respond to a world with WikiLeaks? They have no choice. Corporately, they must move to protect their information from wholesale disclosure on the internet. They'll expend scarce resources strengthening information security and will need to monitor employees more carefully. They'll need to ensure other agencies (including international partners) with access to their information can protect it, and in the meantime may well restrict access. 

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Much needed efforts to strengthen information sharing and connect information systems will be reviewed, slowed or will stall completely. Any money available for information-sharing initiatives will be sucked into protecting existing systems. Lingering inter-agency mistrust will be given renewed life.  And at a personal level, individuals will think twice before committing something to writing or sharing it with a colleague.

This is why I find some of the 'it doesn't need to be this way' comments in response to Rory's article so misplaced. It is quaint to talk about a new era of diplomacy conducted in public. I'm not sure how that would work in practice. There's a suggestion that confidentiality is not itself a problem — and in fact is necessary in diplomacy — but that governments haven't got the calibration right between openness and confidentiality.

But let's be clear. This is not what WikiLeaks is about. WikiLeaks is not trying to reinvent statecraft. It is not trying to recalibrate government openness. It is not a whistle-blower. It is not practicing free speech. It is not just a publisher. It is not a media outlet. WikiLeaks has a political agenda that is anti-American and anti-government. And like most 'anti-' movements, it is not offering practical solutions, it is just against what other people are trying to do to solve problems. 

Why aren't diplomats and other officials' names removed from the US diplomatic cables it is posting to the internet? Because in WikiLeaks' eyes they are the enemy. Any real world personal damage to them is collateral to the WikiLeaks political objective.

So why do government agencies need to act in the way I describe? Because we don't know what's next. Yesterday it was tactical military reports, today it is diplomatic cables. Tomorrow it could be anything that WikiLeaks sees as promoting or defending its interests. It could be information from the Tax Office, the Federal Police, the Health Department, or any other institution of state or, for that matter, private enterprise.

True colours are beginning to emerge. The Australian Government has displeased WikiLeaks and is now under attack, per Julian Assange's thinly veiled threat in the Australian on 8 December. Who's next? Amazon? Financial institutions that have withdrawn their services from WikiLeaks? It will be interesting to see. If WikiLeaks truly believed in transparency it would reveal all about itself, its decisions and internal deliberations, and each and every source of funding — such an approach would certainly be consistent with the 'scientific' approach to journalism that it advocates, whereby the public can reach back to the source to judge for themselves what is true, and what is not.

Even if WikiLeaks disappeared tomorrow, its damage is done. There is certain to be copy cats. What remains to be seen is the cause they summon to justify their actions. And the tragic irony in all this is that many of those who currently support or sympathise with WikiLeaks will be the same ones outraged when the next preventable security incident occurs. They'll also argue for the right to privacy when there is some massive spillage of personal data onto the internet — for that's also a certain in a WikiLeaked world.

Photo by Flickr user Stian Eikeland.


It seems I accidentally hit a raw nerve yesterday by suggesting WikiLeaks and Julian Assange represented why the hacker mentality was bad for democracy. Stephen Collins was kind enough to explain why I was profoundly misinformed and making a fool of the Lowy Institute and myself. Normally it takes much less than 200 words for people to realise that about me, but I digress.

The gist of Collins' argument is that all hackers are not equal — there are evil hackers (script kiddies and crackers), sure, but most hackers are ethical, trying to understand the world through a commitment to open government and a collaborative effort to 'chip away at the edges of a closed system'.

For the sake of the argument, let's accept that premise, noting that the hacker community itself hasn't quite resolved this definitional dilemma. What is it that lies at the core of all of these groups, then? It's right there in Stephen's post where he derides the Lowy Institute for only hiring insiders and suggests his colleagues are 'chipping away at the edges of a closed system'. And it's all throughout the hacker manifesto that Stephen referred me to, with the hacker's sense of alienation from the mainstream and persecution by a world that 'murders, cheats and lies'.

In today's SMH, Tanveer Ahmed has an interesting psychiatric analysis of 'anomia' — a sense of alienation or dissatisfaction with the system which seems to underpin both hacking and conspiracy.

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The hacker manifesto describes the electronic world as a 'refuge from the day to day incompetencies'. But the hardest work in government, particularly diplomacy, is building consensus by managing those incompetencies and accommodating them as differences in opinion.

For hackers, it's all about a quick shortcut into a complex system, and WikiLeaks is the purest embodiment of this mentality. The system sucks, so let's lob a grenade over the wall and see what happens. Hacking is a lot like Victorian era medical care — just let fresh air in to improve circulation and all your diseases will be cleared up.

I'm happy to accept that Stephen and his online colleagues are patiently committed to reforming democracy by working within the system. I know all too well how traumatic it can be when a simplistic analysis overlooks the complexity of a group. I was still a serving military officer when WikiLeaks released the Collateral Murder video and painted all soldiers as baby killers. That's what concerns me most about WikiLeaks — that in our quest for simple truths, we overlook the complexities of a democratic system.

Photo by Flickr user Robert Marin.


Stephen Collins' complaint about the Lowy Institute's unwillingness 'to extend the set of viewpoints into the wider, progressive and non-insider arena' is laughably easy to refute. After all, his argument, along with a previous post of his, was published on the Lowy Institute's blog. As were the views of Scott Burchill, who I think would also class himself as a progressive of sorts.

As for the Lowy Institute's 'narrowness', Stephen has quickly forgotten that both Mark Thirlwell and myself have written in defence of WikiLeaks. Although, speaking for myself, this is not at all from a 'progressive' perspective. It is rather sad that the political right has come to be so closely associated with authoritarianism that it is thought to be impossible for anyone from the right to defend WikiLeaks. But a healthy scepticism of government and the defence of a free press are for me essential components of modern conservatism.

Having said that, James Brown's post has helped me define the limits of my enthusiasm for WikiLeaks. One reason conservatives are so sceptical of revolutions is that conservatives are modest enough to realise that they themselves might not fully recognise the importance of institutions that have survived for centuries. No single generation has a monopoly on political wisdom, so we should be extremely reluctant to tear down age-old practices (such as international diplomacy) on the grounds that we know better than all who have come before.

Judging by Julian Assange's own writings, he is guilty of just that kind of arrogance.

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And yet, it may not matter very much what Assange himself believes. In different ways, both our Canberra insider and Michael Fullilove have tried to put Assange's beliefs and character at the centre of this debate. Insider says WikiLeaks is 'not a media outlet' because it has 'a political agenda that is anti-American and anti-government.' Has Insider read The Age lately? Are all media outlets with an anti-American bent suspicious?

Michael Fullilove, meanwhile, points out that Assange is a tyrannical boss, and that therefore we shouldn't trust his judgment about which cables to release. But if Michael wants to create a character test for media professionals, I've got a few newspaper editors I'd like to introduce him to. (Assange may be a horrible boss, but I have yet to hear him accused of urinating in the sink during editorial meetings.)

None of the WikiLeaks critics have yet made a convincing case for why they are singling out this one organisation. It can't be because WikiLeaks has a radical political agenda, because there is a long tradition of that in journalism. And it can't be because WikiLeaks has indiscriminately dumped a quarter of a million cables on an unsuspecting world, because that just aint true. If WikiLeaks is so on-the-nose, why not also go after Bob Woodward or Australia's own Laurie Oakes, who have built entire careers on the use of leaks?


Below, a response from Stephen Collins to Sam's recent post. But first, Will Grant:

I'm glad to see the senior Canberra security insider's view of WikiLeaks.Though I'd quibble with a number of her/his particular points (particularly on the conflation of individual privacy and state privacy, which Scott Burchill has dealt with previously), the thing that I'm most thinking about now is the framing of the argument.

It's neither ironic nor unpredictable that insiders like the 'senior Canberra security insider' would line up to attack Wikileaks, while outsiders to this security edifice would line up to defend it. It's the job of an insider to defend the inside. 

But what I'd like to know is this: is this argument about WikiLeaks an argument about security, or is it an argument about governance and democracy? If security is paramount in your thinking (something clearly evident in the senior Canberra security insider's view) then it seems you're going to see the defence of the state as paramount, and WikiLeaks as a direct attack on the state. If, however, democracy and democratic governance are paramount in your thinking, then your approach to WikiLeaks is going to be rather different.

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Looking at the posts in your Debate: Wikileaks tag, the concept of 'democracy' comes up in two different ways: as an ossified adjective along the lines of 'democratic governments like those in Australia and the US', or as an open and renegotiable concept at the heart of the debate about what WikiLeaks means. Here WikiLeaks represents a key new element in how we decide how we are governed (see Stephen Collins' and Mark Thirlwell's posts, for example).

I guess my question then goes back to the insiders in the Lowy Institute community — if security is at the heart of your thinking, is it human security, national security or state security that you really care about? If you're an insider in the castle, how interested are you in the opinions/needs/interests of the mob at the gate? 

My guess is that for many of the insiders represented in this debate, state security is paramount, and the mob outside can just accept this. But we're not really going to. It's this anti-democratic thinking that is why insider, security-focused arguments remain unlikely to change many people's opinions about Wikileaks.

Stephen Collins:

Can I clarify? My point about breadth of viewpoints was (probably unclearly on my part, so I carry a fair portion of the blame) more about how think tanks like Lowy staff themselves, rather than the viewpoints you present from your range of contributors. Lowy as a place that publishes a wide range of views couldn't be better. However, your staff and fellows do present a demographic that could be viewed as coming from a narrower set of fields. That said, unsurprising for a public policy institute focused on international affairs.