Moment that mattered: The leaking of the diplomatic cables
I knew three big leaks were coming down the pipeline: the Afghan War logs, the Iraq War logs, and the diplomatic cables. And I was certain the diplomatic cables would be the biggest of the three because it’s information that affects not just one country but the whole world.
There’s lots of stuff in those cables that gave an account of things people already thought were happening, like Russia being a mafia state and Gaddafi being a complete lunatic and leaving nuclear material at the airport just because he was so irritated that he couldn’t pitch his tent outside the UN headquarters. But I think the biggest thing for me, and in a news sense, was the idea of how much surveillance America does on the rest of the world. American diplomats working at the UN are being charged with collecting all sorts of information, including DNA, credit card numbers, frequent flyer details and fingerprints. There’s a security industry that’s quite powerful in America and it’s got the American government forcing other governments to adopt those companies’ technologies for airport screening and DNA collection and biometric identification. That’s noteworthy – that they’re creating a massive database about world citizenry in America that none of us know about.
Wikileaks is part of a global transparency movement that’s changing the way we understand power in society. In the past we’ve had quite a feudal, parent-child relationship where those in power are parents and the rest of us are children, subsidiary, infantalised and ignorant. A wall of secrecy surrounds the powerful to maintain the illusion that they’re better than us and almost god-like. More than anything, these cables show they’re fallible human beings like the rest of us.
There’s a real hunger people have for radical transparency. I think it’s because people feel completely invaded by the state. They feel that all their personal details are being harvested in these mega-databases. They feel their privacy has been stripped by government. In my campaigning and books I say that there should be privacy for the individual going about their private business and transparency for public officials going about their public business, but after 9/11 you’ve got private people laid open to the state. Increasingly it feels like we’re going through one of those airport scanners where the government can see everything about us – our naked bodies, our DNA… And yet we can’t know anything about the state.
Now you’ve got whole global populations used to the internet, which gives them this incredible level of interactivity with power. They’re able to share information, they’re able to talk to each other, they’re able to band together – it’s very collaborative. But governments are in the information Stone Age, a walled, hierarchical, centralised system that doesn’t believe in sharing information. It’s very much on a need-to-know basis. There’s a real disparity between what the citizens want and expect from power and what people in power are prepared to give them. The ferment of revolution is in the air because the people in power aren’t changing fast enough to meet changing expectations.
Is information disclosure dangerous? Well, the 9/11 commission concluded that 9/11 might have been prevented if there had been more information sharing and disclosure. Too many bureaucrats in the government had their little fiefdoms and didn’t want to share what they knew. Now we have this open system (SIPRNET, the US military’s secure internet network) – not only open to people in the government, but also a load of private companies. The people locked out are the people paying the bill, the American people.
From what’s come of the leaks so far, there haven’t been any lives lost or serious national security problems. I’m also increasingly sceptical of the way the term “national security” has been completely devalued by people in government. Politicians have used it so often to protect their own hold on power. They confuse what’s in the public interest with their own political ambition.
Freedom of information versus leaks? The peaceful transition from one government to another is better than a revolution where you cut people’s heads off. And I think that is a good analogy of freedom of information and leaks, because one form of information release is sort of legitimate, and one sort of isn’t.
The problem with governments, including western liberal democracies like America and Britain, is that they have made it so difficult to get information. It took me nearly five years to force MPs to disclose expenses data. It’s self-destructive to make access to freedom of information so difficult because if it’s so slow and not policed properly it incentivises people to leak instead.
They’ve made it so difficult to access information legitimately that now even I feel it would be a waste of time. I look at the amount of success Julian Assange has had. He’s handed a load of information on a plate and it makes me wonder why I wasted all my time bothering with the law and going to court. This country has incentivised people like him and made it harder for people like me.
It’s about challenging this idea that the public can’t be trusted but that the people in power can. Julian Assange has really brought to a head the idea that people in power know what’s best for the rest of us. I feel like he’s the guerrilla front of the transparency movement whereas I’m in the background. I’m more measured and I use the law and try to do things through legitimate channels. But that’s a much slower and less spectacular process. Interview: Rob Orchard
Heather Brooke is the award-winning investigative journalist who broke the parliamentary expenses story after a tireless five year Freedom of Information campaign. Her latest book, ‘The Silent State’ (Windmill Books) is out now.
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