The Fifth Estate

I happened to catch the film “the fifth Estate” about Julian Assange and wikileaks. Certainly, if Assange has a motto, it must surely be “just cos you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!”. Part of the problem with the whole “wikileaks” events was that there was inevitably much media attention on Assange, Bradley Manning and more recently Edward Snowden, but the media chose to largely ignore the stuff they’d actually leaked.

For example we had evidence of that the NSA acquired the pager and text records of many 9/11 victims, then held onto them for years. Now whether wikileaks were right or wrong to release this information, but why in blue blazes would the NSA commit such a massively unethical act? The News of the World was shut down for hacking the phone of just one murdered teenager, yet it would seem the NSA can hack thousands of them and that’s okay.

Or we have video footage of American helicopter pilots committing war crimes. Again, one has to ask was this kept classified for reasons of national security?…Or as part of an attempted cover up of a crime? And consider that under the laws of most countries covering up a crime is considered as bad if not worse than the crime itself (this is why committing perjury or perverting the course of justice carries relatively heavy sentences).

In short one is forced to the conclusion that much of what wikileaks revealed was that the bulk of what governments say is “classified” for reasons of “national security” is in truth being withheld more for reasons of hiding from the public facts that are either inconvenient or prove criminal wrongdoing or gross incompetence by those in power. While yes, one can argue that the Snowden’s and Mannings of the world broke the law revealing these facts. But such crimes pale in comparison to the crimes of the state that they reveal. Why aren’t these agents in jail right now?

And furthermore there is also the criminal incompetence of the security agencies themselves. Tens of billions of our hard earned taxes are spend by the state on “national security”, yet it would seem one mental unstable 20-something with a lady gaga CD can steal several GB’s worth of highly sensitive government secrets. And what was a private contractor (i.e. not a government employee) PFY like Snowden doing with access to classified information?

I say, we ain’t getting value for our money, as I suspect my uni has better information security than GCHQ or the NSA. Then again we could get sued or sacked if information leaks out…unlike the mandarins who run these outfits. Clearly this needs to change and I would argue that everyone above a certain rank in these “intelligence” agencies, if they have a shred of professional decency, should resign at once…or be sacked!

In short what Snowden and wikileaks have revealed is that the security services have created a system that is not only a complete waste of tax payers money (given that they don’t seem to have caught a single terrorist, drug dealer or tax dodger despite wasting billions of pounds on this PRISM system), an affront to the very principles of democracy but has in itself build a massive security loophole that you could drive a bus through.

In short, all the enemies of the US need now do to spy on Americans is hack one website or infiltrate one agent into one facility in Utah and they’ll be able to unlock any information they so wish.

Back during the cold war, two of the most damaging and dangerous spies were John Walker (betrayed to the soviets much information about US submarine operations, which probably shifted the balance of power in sub operations over to the soviets) and Valdimir Vetrov (his activities revealed to the west much Soviet industrial espionage, the cutting off of which had a serious effect on the soviet economy). These two men revealed secrets so damaging that they shifted the direction of the cold war. But what a modern day John Walker could gain access too would make what either of these two did look like the idle ramblings of a gossip column.

And recall that Walker’s motivation for spying was that he ran into financial difficulty. Are the NSA, CIA and GCHQ going to have me believe that in the last few years, despite the global recession, not one of the 100,000’s of their employee’s or outside contractors who have access to classified info, not one has run into financial problems?

Consequently, I suspect that when Snowden revealed all to the Russians or Chinese, or when the US diplomatic cables came out on wikileaks, this wasn’t news to the Russian or Chinese intelligence agencies. Given their capabilities and the obvious lax security, I won’t be surprised if they’ve been aware of this information for sometime.

Consider that a few years ago the Chinese revealed they were working on a new stealth warplane. This shocked most western military analysts as the long assumption has been that Chinese military technology is decades behind the West. Indeed some have suggested the whole thing is just an elaborate hoax by the Chinese. However I would argue that the clearly lax levels of security and the creation of massive databases of easily hacked information means it’s not beyond reason that the West’s most prized secrets have already been scooped up.

In short there is an urgent need to rethink how governments handle “classified” information. While accepting there are things that the government has to keep classified, it is clear that there is no proper oversight of this. Perhaps the solution would be to put a time limit on such laws and force officials to take responsibility for their actions. If the faceless bureaucrat can hide behind his anonymity, they will get up to all sorts of mischief. And in some respects the whole point of sites like wikileaks is to allow whistleblowers the same privileges (so its hardly fair for these agencies to complain if they aren’t prepared to be transparent either!).

I would propose for example a “grandfather” clause that requires information be revealed after a certain periods of time has passed (with certain obvious exceptions, e.g. the blue prints to a nuclear bomb, there is I would argue very little information older than 20 years the revealing of which would threaten national security). Furthermore, anyone seeking to have this information classified would have to give a justification for this and put his name on it. If subsequent investigations and reviews (e.g. every 5 years say, parliament or a judge would be asked to review the material and the reasons for its classification) it is questioned whether it was right and proper to withhold such information from the public (or retain information as part of some investigation), then the spook in question can be held to account.

Now if you know how jealously civil servants guard their job and the access it gives to that civil service pension (this is how we wind up with conkers being panned on grounds of “health and safety”), you’ll know that such rules would all but guarantee that governments would only classify the most vital and important pieces of information and would guard them to the best of their abilities.

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