Sunday, January 30, 2011


A few weeks ago, this documentary on Daniel Ellsberg was shown on Australian TV. Two moments stuck in my mind.

1. The first is this warning that Ellsberg gave to Henry Kissinger when the latter went to work at the White House. The behaviour that Ellsberg describes is a kind of intellectual arrogance based on access to privileged information. This might be possible to paraphrase (in the manner of Lord Acton) as: All secrecy tends to corrupt and absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely. This does not mean that we can abolish secrecy (any more than we can abolish power), rather that we have to put in place safeguards against its power at both the personal and institutional levels. Easier said than done.

2. Later on in the documentary, after Ellsberg has gone public and faces trial, he expresses dismay that the newspaper and TV journalists were not talking about the documents that he had brought into the public domain but rather the "Ellsberg saga". He had ended up becoming the news, which is the last thing that he wanted. The soap opera of capture and trial was easier to write than the murky history of American involvement in Vietnam. Of course, that would never happen today.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hiding in Plain Sight

The internet geeks among you may have heard of this web site called "Wikileaks". I only heard about it the other day through my hair stylist. The things the kidz* get up to these days.

Everyone seems to have become very excited about it. Julian Assange holed up in an English mansion, Bradley Manning losing what's left of his mind, various American politicians calling for the assassination of a foreign national**, web commentators saying why Wikileaks is either brilliant or terrible. The contents of the cables themselves seem to have faded from view and we are left with the soap opera - which, let's face it, is so much more exciting than trying to understand geopolitics.

I tend to come to things a bit late. I'm a bit slow, a bit "special needs". However it now seems to me that Wikileaks is a red herring. A massive and spectacular red herring - more of a red whale in fact - but a distraction none the less.

It's generally assumed that governments hide stuff from their citizens. And this assumption is correct. Governments hide stuff because: some information might allow other states (or commercial entities) to take advantage of them; their citizens have a right to privacy; it might make senior officials and politicians look bad; it's simply what they've done for hundreds of years. Some of these reasons are more justifiable than others. We should have a long conversation about that sometime but not here, now.

What is interesting to me right now is that governments aren't always very good at hiding stuff. In fact, most democratic governments have to make copious amounts of information available by law. You don't even have to trudge to a dusty library these days, it's there on teh interweb. It may not be in an accessible format (*cough* Marrickville Council) but it is there. Now there is still plenty of important stuff kept locked away but we should begin with the information that is publicly available.

In contrast, the media has an obsession with hidden information. This obsession is akin to lazy students who want to break into the filing cabinet that contains the answers to the exam. The answers must be hidden away somewhere, written in a document entitled "Our plans for world domination and public deception", probably formatted in comic sans. And if they aren't, well it just sounds like too much work. Better still, governments could tie us to a nuclear weapon and then recite their evil plans at length, before a minion's ineptitude*** allows us to escape and foil their dastardly plan. And then we can get laid to the soundtrack of Shirley Bassey****. I blame Watergate but what do I know.

For me, the work of Open Australia and Planning Alerts is more important than Wikileaks*****. What can we do with what is hiding in plain sight?

*And by "kidz", I mean men in their late thirties.
**Julian Assange seems to be a fairly extreme anarchist/libertarian. As such he is profoundly anti-government. He probably has more in common with those on the US hard right, the very people who are calling for his death, than they realise.
***An inept public servant? The very idea...
****I have no idea if that would work in practice.
*****Perhaps we should call Open Australia terrorists. With their "Apache" servers and their "HTML".