Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Out of the Box

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  • Phil Lyth,

    Before anybody assumes we have anything like Top Secret America, I'll make the point that a Top Secret clearance is not an open sesame to all the Government's secrets.

    There is a strong 'need to know', so a TS network-engineer wouldn't have access to threat assessment papers; a diplomat in Sydney wouldn't have access to Budget papers. Etc.

    Wellington • Since Apr 2009 • 458 posts Report Reply

  • Phil Palmer,

    There remains the distinct possibility that lives could be lost as a result of all this, as Assange and his source have acknowledged by witholding such a large chunk of material on security grounds.

    "The distinct possibility that lives could be lost" - crikey, who wants that? Except that when it was Valerie Plame's contacts, and it was a matter of making the case for a war, rather than the case against it, then no-one seemed to care so much. I do, really and genuinely, admire your gentleness and principles, Russell, but it does seem that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been conducted with inhuman cynicism for domestic political calculations, for no other reason than to enable American crooks to raid their own Treasury, and in this case being even-handed just isn't going to cut it.

    It's not as though Assange was making this stuff up.

    Since Nov 2006 • 36 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Just trying to do the sums, Phil, although I don't mind you contesting it.

    I was bearing in mind that Bradley Hanning claimed to have passed on years of US diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. In the real world, information must be able to be shared in confidence sometimes. Innocent people who oppose their governments -- or decently serve the US government -- could suffer in the case of an indiscriminate leak of communications like that.

    That's what worries me a bit about Assange, and why I'm pleased he seems to have done this in a considered way, in co-operation with very good journalists like David Leigh.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22744 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart,

    In the real world, information must be able to be shared in confidence sometimes. Innocent people who oppose their governments -- or decently serve the US government -- could suffer in the case of an indiscriminate leak of communications like that.

    There was a very good BBC Radio 4 Analysis (or possibly File on 4?) podcast not so long ago (read: in the last year) which dealt with the concept of discretion - i.e. the idea that just because you could spread information doesn't mean you need to - and how that has been lost somewhat as a value, especially around government-related information. This is certainly a case where this applies.

    The other side of the coin, of course, is that this is a war where there have been massive and concerted attempts by the governments involved to obfuscate, hide, and lie about information which was materially important, not just to the operation of the war, but to the *justification* of the war. The concept of accepting discretion and secrets in government relies on the idea that those who are deciding what to keep secret or quiet about are doing it for the right reasons. It's about trust. It requires trust. And when it comes to the US and their foreign adventures of the last decade, that well is long since run dry.

    Which doesn't mean that there isn't stuff that still needs to be kept secret. It just means that there is *huge* motivation to want everything out in the open - and no-one, at this point, who is legitimately in the know *and* can be trusted to determine what should and shouldn't be released.

    (TL;DR - when governments lie, the subsequent destruction of trust royally screws their ability to keep secrets long-term.)

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2105 posts Report Reply

  • Idiot Savant,

    VGrateful if you could cite sources for saying that MPs and Ministers are vetted.

    I'd like to know this too, because I find the thought of the SIS having some sort of veto on our democratic representation deeply disturbing.

    Palmerston North • Since Nov 2006 • 1711 posts Report Reply

  • Phil Lyth,

    Put it another way. David Farrar, to be able to work for various Prime Ministers, had to be vetted. But formerly-long-haired-and-bearded Murray McCully has not once been vetted by the SIS despite being at Parliament for 23 years.

    How bad is that!

    Wellington • Since Apr 2009 • 458 posts Report Reply

  • HORansome,

    I know one Minister's aide that was vetted, and I have to tell you, if the way they were vetted is normal, I would say our culture of secrecy is more Python than Kafka.

    Tāmaki Makaurau • Since Sep 2008 • 441 posts Report Reply

  • Phil Lyth,

    In New Zealand, there is one degree of separation.

    Wellington • Since Apr 2009 • 458 posts Report Reply

  • Amy Gale,

    An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

    Goodness knows how many can access mere Secret stuff and the rest.

    To clarify, holding top-secret security clearance doesn't mean you have access to ANY top-secret information, much less ALL of it.

    What it means is that if you need to know some piece of top-secret information, Them That Do The Checking have decided that you can be trusted with it.

    That such a large number of people have been vetted to TS is fairly astonishing in a purely logistical sense (how many staff would you need?) and has privacy effects for them and their families, but it doesn't tell us anything at all about how many people actually have access to anything.

    tha Ith • Since May 2007 • 471 posts Report Reply

  • Tom Semmens,

    the idea that just because you could spread information doesn't mean you need to

    And most of what should be secret is already known by everyone on both sides who counts, and everything else is secret merely because it saves someone from embarassment.

    Secrecy is 99.999% of the time just a way to stop citizens asking inconvenient questions.

    Sevilla, Espana • Since Nov 2006 • 2210 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole,

    Obviously I misunderstood what I read about vetting of MPs, but clearly at least some of them, such as Pull'ya Benefit, do get vetted. What's so special about Bennett that she gets vetted? I would hardly call being the Minister of Social Development and Minister of Youth Affairs posts of great import to national security. She's not even on any select committees. So if she's vetted, one reasonably assumes that other Ministers are vetted too. If that was an assumption too far, my bad.

    NRT, the SIS don't "get a veto" on anything. They make no decisions about granting clearances. They provide the information and a recommendation, but the clearance is granted by the head of the organisation responsible for the classified information in question. ie: Broad's designees grant clearances for Police personnel, Matapere's designees grant clearances for Defence personnel, and so forth. Tucker only grants clearances for information classified by NZSIS. It's entirely possible for the head of a granting agency to ignore the SIS's recommendation, though there would doubtless be hard questions if the person was later found to have leaked classified information.
    And the SIS don't vet candidates, so even if they did grant clearances they still wouldn't get to do it until after an election. You can vote for whoever you like, and they can be elected, no matter what the role of the SIS in all of this.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole,

    And the SIS don't vet candidates

    That should be political candidates. Obviously they vet employment candidates.

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • Whoops,

    Another Assange quote outlining why he does what he does;


    There cannot be good governance without good information given to good people. It's impossible in a democracy. Physicists [Assange was trained at University of Melbourne in physics] look at extreme circumstances to understand a situation. The extreme situation of ignorance would be if everyone was deaf, dumb and blind tomorrow. Each person could not communicate with other people. Every form of society would collapse in an instant — democracies, monarchies and dictatorships alike. But if we look in the other direction and ask what if we maximized the reliable, verified information about how the world is working. Then we start to produce more sophisticated and intelligent structures that respond to the abuses in societies and also the opportunities there may be in society.


    from http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2006789-2,00.html

    Not sure he's 'all that', but he's moving towards it.

    here • Since Apr 2007 • 105 posts Report Reply

  • simon g,

    The Guardian is liveblogging discoveries amongst the files and responses to the news.

    Are they checking the mini-bar tabs? Need some help from our press gallery?

    War, snore ... let us know when you've got a story.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 1319 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Not sure he's 'all that', but he's moving towards it.

    Yes, I think the change in Wikileaks' operating practices is a good thing, but Assange has published leaks that had no genuine public interest attached -- including Wesley Snipes' tax records, which contained Snipes' social security number.

    That was disgraceful and unnecessary -- and ironic given the complete lack of transparency around Wikileaks' own finances.

    This story explains why some people in the same game, including John Young, Wikileaks' co-founder, have been so critical of Assange.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22744 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia,

    Yes, I think the change in Wikileaks' operating practices is a good thing, but Assange has published leaks that had no genuine public interest attached -- including Wesley Snipes' tax records, which contained Snipes' social security number.

    And I'm fairly certain Assange would be the first to cry foul if his tax records - and personal information useful in identity theft -- found their way on-line. "Government secrecy" also includes the strange notion that the records of the time I spent in a couple of public hospital psych ward twenty years ago are not for public consumption. Though I'm sure, if I ever stood for Parliament, there are those who would beg to differ,

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12370 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Barnes,

    I would say our culture of secrecy is more Python than Kafka.

    I once had to sign the OSA (official secrets act) back in the UK, that gave me clearance to an enormous amount of stuff. Just signing to OSA was enough, no background check, just your signature under a paragraph that said "I won't tell anybody about anything anybody tells me" or suchlike.
    One day I was given an official document defining the order and execution of our mission and set out to complete our task. I was approached by a woman who attempted to extricate information, I resisted. There was no way I was going to expose our mission and refused to reveal which plants were going where in the flowerbeds of Greenwich Park.

    Peria • Since Dec 2006 • 5521 posts Report Reply

  • Phil Lyth,

    What's so special about Bennett that she gets vetted?

    It is the HoS that said she had been vetted, apparently sourced from thin air. Their question might have been better posed as:

    "Did she disclose to the Prime Minister her relationship with Halaholo?" (her daughter's ex-partner)

    If Bennett handled everything as per the conflict of interest section of the Cabinet Manual, all's good. But we don't know because she and Key refused to answer.

    Wellington • Since Apr 2009 • 458 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel,

    I would say our culture of secrecy
    is more Python than Kafka.

    I'm thinking more Pylon to CAFCA
    view the great Comalco Comic here ...
    (once it loads if ya don't see anything hit the
    multipage view next to the scroll button...)

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7885 posts Report Reply

  • Whoops,

    This story explains why some people in the same game,

    Thanks RB. very interesting and led me to this

    http://www.newschallenge.org/knc-2010-winners

    which is very relevant to another line of work for me.

    here • Since Apr 2007 • 105 posts Report Reply

  • DexterX,

    Media 7

    Pam is the Keef Richards of NZ Public Life, albeit somewhat more jaded and with a less developed sense of fun.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 1224 posts Report Reply

  • Logan O'Callahan,

    A navy radio operator told me once that it took two years before his security clearance came through. He reckoned those delays were a big part of the problem of getting and holding staff in the forces.

    Since Apr 2008 • 70 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart,

    A navy radio operator told me once that it took two years before his security clearance came through. He reckoned those delays were a big part of the problem of getting and holding staff in the forces.

    Someone I know who applied for a security-clearance-requiring job (I'm not sure what level, but it'd be pretty high) was told it would take at least six months to vet him if he was offered the job. For a graduate position, that's quite a wait, and a major disincentive if you need the income.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2105 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole,

    Yeah, getting a TS clearance can take a long time. In NZ I'm told the SIS aims to get vetting for TS completed within six months, but it can take longer, especially if a person has lived oversees or has other aspects of their life that require deeper investigation. Apparently in the US 18-24 months is more normal.

    Chief executives of agencies that grant clearances can give temporary access to classified material pending results of vetting, especially if the initial police records checks come back clear. My ex-NZDF network engineer friend was given temporary Secret clearance so that he could start working while his TS vetting was completed.

    [edit: I knew the status of his clearance application because I was one of his referees. He told me where things were up to in the process so that I wouldn't get surprised by a call from the SIS wanting to arrange an interview.]

    Auckland • Since Mar 2007 • 4097 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    From memory, my UK TS clearance didn't take all that long at all. Couple of months, maybe? But that was a few years ago now.

    I could tell you more, but you know how it is. I'd have to kill you afterwards.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2728 posts Report Reply

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