Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 01:30 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 01:30 | SYDNEY

The lure of classified information


Sam Roggeveen


1 December 2010 16:17

Just because information is classified, does not mean it is valuable.

Politicians are often seduced by the aura of clandestine information-gathering, and this might be one reason DFAT funding has suffered in the last decade at the expense of the intelligence community — the diplomats have not been able to convince their political masters that information gathered openly through diplomatic exchanges can be just as important as that which is gathered covertly.

The same principle holds good for the latest Wikileaks revelations. So when a classified cable reveals that a Gulf monarch once mocked French military technology, don't assume this reveals the truth or even that King Hamad of Bahrain was being candid. He was, after all, talking to US General David Petraeus. Hamad may simply have been trying to ingratiate himself with an American by making fun of the French. Or perhaps he thought his comments would find their way back to American arms manufacturers, who would be encouraged to then offer Bahrain new toys.

Similarly, as Dan Drezner points out, just because a Chinese diplomat privately criticises North Korea and calls it a threat to global security doesn't mean Chinese policy is about to change radically. To make a judgment about that, you really need to examine the public evidence of China's policy.

The furore over Wikileaks might also reveal a related cognitive bias. There is a tendency to believe that more or better information will inevitably help us fix something ('if only we could remove doubt about climate science, then we could all get behind a solution'). But this is the information age, and in the political realm at least, a lack of information is seldom the most pressing problem. In fact, too much data is the problem, and figuring out how to make sense of it.