So now we know who has been talking to the US covertly

Philip Dorling writes in Fairfax in Australia that there are serious questions about who holds vital information, who releases it, who should horde it and where responsibility lies in an age where Wikileaks (rightly) forces governments and journalists to own up to their own culpability in human rights abuses and cover-ups:

Confirmation that the full WikiLeaks archive of United States diplomatic cables has been leaked on the internet is bad news for US diplomacy – but potentially much worse for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who have talked confidentially with US diplomats.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and The Guardian, one of a handful of newspapers that began publishing redacted cables in co-operation with WikiLeaks last November, are now trading ever more sharp accusations about responsibility for the massive security breach.

More important, however, is the breach itself.

As someone who has had direct access to the archive, I have no doubt the potential for harm is very real.

The danger arises not in countries like Australia, where the revelation that Labor senator Mark Arbib has been a valued source for the US embassy brought embarrassment and criticism, but nothing more.

It is a very different matter in countries like China, where the arbitrary exercise of state power is very real and the disclosure of even quite innocuous information can be declared a breach of state secrecy or even espionage.

For example, secret and confidential cables from the US embassy in Beijing and other US diplomatic posts in China contain hundreds of reports of off-the-record and sometimes extremely sensitive conversations with Chinese officials, academics, business people, human rights activists, political dissenters, and indeed ordinary people.

In many cases, these contacts, often through a desire to advance dialogue and mutual understanding, have expressed themselves freely, criticised aspects of the communist regime and disclosed information that is in some cases highly secret.

These disclosures range from academics who have revealed their knowledge of internal Chinese communist politburo politics, to officials who have revealed corruption and maladministration, to lawyers who have reported breaches of human rights and political repression.

In the case of China, the caveat in the cables to ”please protect” or to label sources ”highly protected” carries very real significance.

This doesn’t mean that the Chinese Ministry of State Security will round up all the US diplomats’ contacts next week. That is unlikely. But many of these people will now be at risk.

The same risks apply in numerous other countries with authoritarian regimes and active state security services.

Indeed, as the former US State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley observed this week, “any autocratic security service worth its salt” would probably now have the complete unredacted archive.

Publication of the full US cable archive may also cause some uncomfortable moments for The Guardian and The New York Times, two of WikiLeaks’ original media partners that have fallen out so spectacularly with Assange.

More here and here.

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