The following points by leading Australian intellectual and academic Scott Burchill is published here exclusively:
Below are edited transcripts of two interviews with Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove about WikiLeaks, both from ABC TV’s The 7.30 Report. The first is dated 30 November, 2010. The second is from 7 January, 2011.
I have removed contributions by others and incidental background material.
A posting at The Interpreter blog on 15 December, 2010 by Michael Fullilove appears below the interviews.
My annotations are in italics.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation: The 7.30 Report
Reporter: Thea Dikeos
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: A lot of the news that is breaking is things that we sort of knew anyway. We knew that Gulf States don’t trust Iran. We knew that China doesn’t like Google. A lot of new stories that they’re reporting, we really knew that stuff anyway.
SB: With fewer than 1% of the cables in the public domain at the time these remarks were made, this seems a remarkably premature evaluation for a foreign policy analyst. It sounds more like wishful thinking. What Fullilove can’t explain is why there was such an extraordinary global reaction (popular and governmental) when the first few cables were released if, as he suggests, there was nothing new in them. The “nothing new argument” was soon dropped by critics of WikiLeaks in response to daily revelations in the mainstream media and Washington’s apoplectic reaction. For revelations about Australia, see http://t.co/aeabyXS and for the world generally, see http://shar.es/XyjTW
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: I think getting diplomats that aren’t intelligence operatives to be collecting biometric data and frequent flyer numbers and that sort of stuff is not advisable.
SB: “Not advisable”? Try illegal.
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: If this is not a shield for anti-American behaviour, if they really believe that, then I would like to see their exposes on Chinese diplomatic and military dealings and Russian diplomatic and military dealings and Iranian and North Korean misdeeds.
SB: Fullilove knows WikiLeaks doesn’t source information. It publishes what it receives. If they had Chinese or Russian cables, they would have every reason to disclose them in the same way, for the same reasons. Fullilove is implying that WikiLeaks is holding back these cables because it is racist, and is arguing that it can only prove its patriotism (to whom?) if it publishes them.
What is it with the NSW Right of the ALP and their obsequious crawling to Washington (Carr, Arbib, Loosely, Fullilove, et al)? They seem so entranced by US history it would be no surprise to find them in costume re-enacting the Civil War. They are the new “forelock tuggers”, replacing the Tories they regularly pilloried for precisely the same servile behaviour.
For an analysis of equivalent antics in the Australian media, see http://bit.ly/eblxOm
Australian Broadcasting Corporation: The 7.30 Report
Reporter: Tracy Bowden
TRACY BOWDEN, PRESENTER: Michael Fullilove, you say the release of these documents by WikiLeaks will create evil consequences. What do you mean by that?
MICHAEL FULLILOVE, FOREIGN POLICY ANALYST, LOWY INSTITUTE: Well, I think if you release or you propose to release a quarter of a million cables, then that will have good consequences but also evil consequences, and I’m not persuaded that WikiLeaks has discharged its duty of care to maximise the good consequences and minimise the evil consequences. I think the randomness and incoherence and sloppiness of WikiLeaks work doesn’t give me a lot of faith in their processes.
SB: What duty of care? To whom? Why is Assange morally or legally obliged to keep Washington’s secrets from the public, as Fullilove expects him to? References to “randomness”, “incoherence” and “sloppiness” imply WikiLeaks is, or should behave like a department of state. Why should it? The fact that still only 0.8% of the cables have been released belies these trite charges and one suspects WikiLeaks isn’t looking for Fullilove’s “faith in their processes.” It’s never claimed to be a representative, publicly-accountable organisation. These are the comments of someone who simply cannot imagine anything beyond the normal conduct of diplomacy by his “friends at State” and the cosy symbiosis between government and the media.
TRACY BOWDEN: You actually did say that a quarter of a million had been dumped, that’s not the case. So far it’s only 2,000 and they were released in tandem with a group of the world’s most respected newspapers.
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: But they’re proposing to release a quarter of a million. They’ve released those quarter of a million to the newspapers, including ‘The Guardian’ and I have every expectation that at some point those documents will all be released. Their emphasis is disclosure. Their view is very much people aren’t entitled to secrets, transparency is king, and I guess my approach is there are competing interests.
There is a need for transparency because without transparency bad things can happen, but there is also a need in society for confidentiality because without confidentiality, nothing can happen, and I don’t think WikiLeaks is good at balancing those competing interests.
SB: Where has Assange said all the cables will be released? In several interviews Assange has suggested that there are occasions when governments should legitimately maintain their secrets. Fullilove knows this but avoids the interviewer’s invitation to correct his mistake from the first interview by fudging his answer. Again he refuses to criticise the newspapers that are actually disseminating the cables. Why? Aren’t they equally guilty of “randomness”, “incoherence” and “sloppiness”?
His claim that “without confidentiality, nothing can happen” is nonsense. Open sources are much more reliable and confidentiality is often inversely proportional to trust. Confidentiality makes Fullilove and his “friends at State” feel special and they want to police entry to their exclusive club.
TRACY BOWDEN: As you would be aware, there was some care or responsibility, as far as Julian Assange is concerned, they say that there was several months of discussions before they released the documents, that they went to the State Department to talk about redactions and there was every effort they say to ensure that vital American contacts were not exposed. Does that comfort you?
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Actually, all the recent reporting goes the other way. There is an article in the current edition of ‘Vanity Fair’ which reveals some of the discussions between ‘The Guardian’ and Mr Assange which paints WikiLeaks in a very bad light, I think.
Also, when you look at some of the email conversations between Mr Assange and his subordinates, you don’t get the sense that this is a substantial organisation with robust internal decision-making processes, it feels much more like an organisation, organised around a personality cult and I think that’s dangerous.
Again, I’m not saying that none of these documents are valuable. I think some of them are interesting, some of them indeed fascinating and important, but just like a sick tree can bear fruit, just because some of these cables are interesting and important doesn’t mean that WikiLeaks is admirable or credible or trustworthy.
SB: So Fullilove is in favour of some leaking. How much? Which cables? The ones Bob Woodward publishes without criticism and makes a fortune from? Do his “friends at State” know this? Better to switch the interview to the organisation with condescending ad hominem attacks and nonsense about a personality cult which, as he well knows, the media is largely responsible for creating.
TRACY BOWDEN: It sounds like you’re questioning his motives as much as anything?
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Well, I don’t want to go to his motives. I try to judge him, I think, on his actions and I just think he is not showing a lot of care in those actions, given what’s at stake.
SB: Except when you accused him of being “anti-American” – that is racist – in your earlier interview.
TRACY BOWDEN: Now, the cables show – one thing they do show is that the public has been lied to before and during the Iraq war. Isn’t that information that people should have and as a foreign policy analyst, isn’t that information that concerns you?
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Look, I think this information is important and obviously for a foreign policy analyst, it’s good for business and I’m not saying none of this information should come out. I guess I’m critiquing the incoherence of WikiLeaks’ approach.
In other words there is a different between a whistleblower saying, ‘I have a particular piece of information about an abuse of power or about a dishonesty or lie that needs to surface’.
There is a difference between that and dumping thousands or tens of thousands of documents in the case of the Afghanistan/Iraq war that deal with all sorts of topics from all over the world and just saying, “go for broke.” I think society, organisations whether it’s ‘The 7:30 Report’ or the Lowy Institute or the US Government have a requirement for confidential information and just sort of calling open slather on information in the way that WikiLeaks does I think is dangerous.
SB: So some of the information should come out, but none of it would have without WikiLeaks, as Fullilove well knows. He seems to want an orderly, pre-approved release – ie the status quo which has left us so much in the dark. What he means by “incoherence” is beyond me – what doesn’t Fullilove understand? Actually the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs dealt almost exclusively with those two wars. They didn’t deal with “all sorts of topics from all over the world.” It seems that in Fullilove’s world there are good whistleblowers (who don’t upset his friends in Washington) and bad ones (who do – in fact WikiLeaks isn’t a whistleblower organisation, it publishers the document procured by whistleblowers). If you are inside the Beltway, you can be trusted to do the responsible thing.
Sourcing leaks is the lifeblood of investigative journalism. WikiLeaks is simply better at it than most. What Fullilove hates is the embarrassment these disclosures have caused to the political class he is so desperate to join.
TRACY BOWDEN: So are you saying that information about the lies told about Iraq, problems connected with the weapons of mass destruction are you saying it’s fair enough to release that information?
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Well, it’s not clear to me that there were scoops in relation to that. I mean, we all know that there were no weapons of mass destruction; we all know that that intelligence turned out to be flawed. So it’s not clear to me that anything in particular was gained with that disclosure.
SB: So only issues deemed newsworthy or “scoops” can and should be legitimately leaked and published? That’s his criteria for publication? One would have thought these are precisely the cables he would be most concerned about. Clearly informing the public about the activities of their governments is not a high priority.
TRACY BOWDEN: So in terms of your concerns about these evil consequences, another issue has been the security of some of the sources. Is there any evidence yet that anyone has suffered as a consequence of these documents being released?
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: I think there is lots of evidence that people have suffered. Careers have been damaged; people have been humiliated and embarrassed for doing their jobs.
I think if you look at a lot of the documents that have come out of countries like China, I think you would say, although we don’t know what the evidence is, but you would have to say that security services who are not as fussy about human rights as, say, the FBI or the Justice Department will be able to look at that information and work out who some of those sources were.
But I think Tracy, the consequences are broader than that, broader than individual cases. I think this will have a chilling effect on the willingness of civil society members in authoritarian countries to talk to foreign diplomats. Already diplomats in country like China, Russia and Iran are saying they are finding it harder to encourage people to talk to them honestly and openly and I think that in the long run, I think that has deleterious consequences.
SB: The embarrassment and humiliation of Fullilove’s political mates and idols hardly constitutes “evil” behaviour. The question about “suffering” clearly refers to physical harm, and there is no evidence of WikiLeaks endangering people in that way – a point even the Pentagon has conceded. In the event that names have been redacted and given no-one can provide any evidence of what Fullilove claims (including his “chilling effect”), little will actually change.
The quarter of a million cables held by WikiLeaks enjoy only a moderate security classification, and constitute a very small percentage of the total classified material held by the State Department.
TRACY BOWDEN: The US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that he thinks that that was a little overstated and he as actually admitted that America’s security in relation with these documents was a bit slack?
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: I think America’s security in relation to the documents was hopeless. I think it’s unbelievable to me that a private could have access to so many documents and be able to copy them. I think it’s completely nuts, but that doesn’t change WikiLeaks’ responsibility for putting the documents out in the public domain.
SB: He avoids responding to Gates’ admission because it undermines his “argument”. Again its not the content of the cables which concerns Fullilove, but who gets to read them – ie the great unwashed masses.
TRACY BOWDEN: So essentially you’re saying that the benefits that might come out of the WikiLeaks are outweighed by the risks? The right of people to know, is not significant enough?
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: No, I think there are competing interests and I think that it’s incumbent upon anybody releasing information to try to balance those interests and to say, “there is a particular wrong here we’re trying to expose and therefore it makes sense to release this information.”
Journalists do this every day. Every day journalists exercise that sort of judgment, that’s entirely different from just proposing to dump thousands or tens of thousands of documents that could have all sorts of unintended consequences.
SB: Ah, such faith in the mainstream media. Woodward’s judgement is OK, Assange’s is not. The reason we have WikiLeaks is because the journalists that Fullilove has so much faith in haven’t done their job. If they had, there would be no market for WikiLeaks. What is “entirely different” is merely the scale and range of the leaking, which is what makes them so interesting to so many.
TRACY BOWDEN: Would you feel more comfortable if some of this information was about, for example, the Chinese Communist Party?
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Well, I think it would be useful if the playing field that WikiLeaks was establishing was more level. I think because it’s easier to steal information from open democratic societies therefore the vast preponderance of material that we’ve found to date has been American in origin.
We haven’t seen the same – nearly the same level of documents from China or Russia or Iran and North Korea.
Interestingly, notwithstanding that, I think actually the Americans don’t come out of this as badly as Mr Assange probably hoped because if you squint your eyes and you look at the totality of information that has come out so far from the State Department leaks, what you find is that the problems that America complains about ritually, for example, the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, are serious, they’re serious problems taken very seriously by governments all around the world.
And yet whereas American diplomats are out there every day trying to resolve these problems, other governments might egg them on privately but publicly won’t do so. So in a funny sort of way Mr Assange has does America a favour.
SB: Translation: “My “friends at State” are great guys who can be trusted to always do the right thing (ie they are always striving to stop wars and never start them) and if they don’t think we should know something, we shouldn’t be told.”
If Assange is doing Washington a favour, what’s the problem?
TRACY BOWDEN: Finally, 59 percent of Australians support the release of the cables. I guess you’re at odds with them?
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Well, I think Australians like an underdog and Mr Assange is taking it up to the most powerful country in the world but Australians also don’t like people who dodge their responsibility and they don’t like people who dodge extradition as Christopher Skase found out, so we’ll see how public opinion goes on that in the future.
SB: Nice link to the sex case against Assange: this is another ad hominem attack. Translation: “The public are irrelevant. It’s only people like me who count – the responsible men of power who can be trusted to be sound in judgement. We should decide what the public gets to hear and read.”
The Interpreter – Lowy Institute
15 December 2010
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.
SB: There is no evidence for any of these claims. Which peace processes exactly? The FBI and Justice Department are “fussy about human rights”? In the sense that they are careful to abuse them?
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.
SB: WikiLeaks staff are well known, few if any are anonymous. Again, what duty of care – and to whom? Fullilove knows little or nothing about the internal decision-making processes of WikiLeaks. And he remains resolutely mute about the media organisations that are leading the dissemination of the cables. Why no equivalent criticism of them?
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.
SB: Fewer than 1% of the cables have been dumped. The rationale may not be clear to Fullilove, though it seems to have convinced a number of the world’s leading newspapers, El Pais, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and The New York Times, who are also publishing the cables. To say nothing about their readers.
But with this dump WikiLeaks is not uncovering a particular secret; it is outlawing secrets altogether.
SB: This is nonsense. See comments above. Assange has conceded the need for secrets in a number of circumstances.
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.)
SB: Ditto. Reductio ad absurdum. What about the diplomatic secrecy which has caused wars (eg Iraq 2003) and prevented the settlement of conflicts (Israel-Palestine, East Timor, etc)?
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.
SB: Has the diplomatic system collapsed since WikiLeaks began leaking State Department cables in November 2010? In what ways have “peaceful means” been “undermined”? Fullilove is a chicken little who can’t point to any changes at all because there haven’t been any, other than a predictable tightening of communications security. Given his record on East Timor and elsewhere, it’s no surprise Fullilove prefers Holbrooke, see: http://j.mp/eIcxFU
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.
SB: See comment above. There is no level playing field. It’s not a competition or a game. Surely we can evaluate US diplomacy without rationalising it via comparative assessments? WikiLeaks publishes what it gets from whistleblowers. It doesn’t source the material.
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.
SB: It doesn’t but if it did, why the complaints and concerns? Why is Hilary Clinton still travelling the world apologizing to allied and friendly governments? The diplomatic reputation of the US is in tatters, as virtually every “friendly” government from Singapore to Saudi Arabia has been saying. Squint your eyes and Washington’s calumny doesn’t evaporate unless, like Fullilove, you are a member of the US lobby in Australia. In that case your myopia ensures that you never see it anyway.
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.
SB: It’s only reckless behavior if you are striving to preserve Washington’s secrets and keep the public in the dark. Unsurprisingly, the Australian public see things very differently.
Even a sick tree can bear fruit. But we shouldn’t pretend that the tree is healthy.
SB: If there is a sick tree worth felling it’s the current diplomatic system.