Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 04:37 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 04:37 | SYDNEY

The government abuse of secrecy

This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

13 March 2012 13:29

This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

There is a need for secrecy and there is abuse of secrecy. There is a lot to be protected and some good reasons for protecting it. One of the greatest forces for getting the balance wrong is government convenience.

Rather than protecting us from a real or potential adversary, a competitor or even a neighbour, governments use national security to protect themselves from domestic scrutiny of poor policies and incompetent implementation. Comment in this series reflects the failure to get the balance right. I think this applies particularly in the military arena.

I found WiliLeaks fascinating but the only thing it revealed to me was that, in relation to the important function of speaking to various foreign embassies, our professional diplomats (such as Ric Smith) came out streets ahead of our politicians (such as Kevin Rudd, once a professional diplomat). I also find it fascinating that most of the 'important' issues 'exposed' in WikiLeaks would have been known to foreign diplomats and intelligence agencies that were at all interested and half smart.

Therefore, you have to assume that a good deal of our secrecy is aimed at the domestic media and the Australian people.

In relation to the detritus of day-to-day staff work in Iraq as revealed through Wikileaks, I cannot think of much that would have any implications as long as it was revealed after the event. I certainly cannot think of any critical tactical techniques revealed by the routine communications published. They were interesting only to the uninitiated. This is the kind of stuff that is eventually released to historians to write the official history.

But I would still prosecute the perpetrator to the full extent of the law because it is not up to him or her to decide what is secret and what is not, and if nothing else, that person broke their contract not to reveal secrets.

One area where national security secrecy is used to protect governments from scrutiny of poor policies and incompetent implementation is in defence.

Because of contrived national security restrictions, Australians are totally incapable of judging, first, if a defence policy is appropriate, and second, if the government is implementing what they said they would implement. This stems from governments not being prepared to be open and understandable about the security analysis that underlies defence policy, and then avoiding being anything like open enough about what the defence policy should eventually produce in the form of military capability.

If we do not know why we have decided to buy 100 Joint Strike Fighters and 12 submarines, then none of us can criticise the decision with any validity. We have to trust the government that, with some integrity, they have gone from a strategic analysis to the procurement of submarines and fighters.

Then once we have the policy, the implementation always fails. Very soon after the publication of a White Paper, governments quietly remove significant amounts of money from them. If, due to contrived secrecy, we did not know why and how the government came up with its policy in the first place, and we don't know how much security such a policy will produce for us in the equipment we buy, we have no chance of ever being able to criticise incompetent government implementation.

And even when we do discover the capability deficiencies that government incompetence produces in our defence force, there is pressure not to speak of them openly for national security reasons!

Photo by Flickr user Zach Klein.