Category Archives: National Security

WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Decoding the National Security Commentariat

The Fourth Estate, that historical unelected grouping of society’s scrutineers, has become something of a rabble, and, as a confederacy of strewn dunces and the ongoing compromised, is ripe for analysis.  An essential premise in the work of WikiLeaks was demonstrating, to a good, stone-throwing degree, how media figures and practitioners had been bought by the state or the corporate sector, unwittingly or otherwise.  At the very least, the traditionalists had swallowed their reservations and preferred to proclaim, rather unconvincingly, that they were operating with freedom to scrutinise and question, facing down the rebels from the WikiLeaks set.

The Fourth Estate has, however, been placed on poor gruel and life support.  Gone are the days when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein ferreted their way through sources and obtaining the material – leaks from confidential sources, no less – that would make them famous and lay the way for the demise of a US President.  Such energy is frowned upon these days; the investigative journalist is being treated more as an irritating remnant, a costly undusted fossil.  The way for what Nozomi Hayase calls the “Global Fourth Estate” is being well and truly paved as a result.

The corporate factor in this process is undeniable.  The Australian media tycoon and ageing tyrant Rupert Murdoch has proven to be the kiss of death to much decent journalism, though he is by no means the only contributor.  As a man who takes pride in directly intervening in the policies and directions of his newspapers, identifying the credible view from the crafty slant is a hard thing.  Political and business interests tend to converge in such an empire.  Balanced reporting is for the bleeding hearts.

Meshed in this compromised journalism is a particular type of commentator, the holder of opinions with an open channel to the national security establishment.  They are the Deep Throats turned into media judges and avengers.  They might be flatteringly called the national security fraternity, a club of the military and espionage clubbables, the sort who find it inconceivable that someone from the public might throw open the larder of government secrets to expose a state’s misdeeds.  It went without saying that such individuals would see, in WikiLeaks, the incarnation of a pseudo-intelligence service, or at the very least, its tailor for one.

The national security fraternity is typified by the revolving door.  It whirs around, not merely in oil companies, the US State Department and merchant banks, but the issue of the media stable.  The state demands its permanent loyalties; those who have served in advisory roles in the state will keep paying once they leave.  Security-trained and watered thoroughbreds are bound to see outliers and vigilantes as challengers who need to be put down.

Samantha Vinograd supplies a nice example.  The crossover into journalism from the National Security State (NSS) is made from experience as advisor to the National Security Council as the Director for Iraq.  (That could hardly have gone that well.)  Her teeth well cut on security matters and advice, her journalism is bound to be tinged and flavoured by the apparatus of the state.  Julian Assange, she argues, is “the self-anointed director of his own intel service.”

The evidence she assesses on whether Assange requires punishment is deemed self-evident; the evidence comes from a source that need not be questioned.  Vinograd exudes the confidence of one clutching to the inside of the establishment, and one with lapels suggesting patriot and defender of state.  An Assange-like figure is bound to not merely be poison making its way to the vestal virgins; it is a figure to be extirpated.

In casting her own eye over the list of expanded charges against Assange, she has taken the allegations against him of espionage to be factual. But she does so by attempting to repudiate his credentials as a publisher and journalist.  “If anyone is making the [sic] Assange is a free speech champion, read paragraph 36,” she intones.  “He knowingly endangered the lives of journalists, religious leaders, human rights advocates, and political dissidents and did incredible harm to all our security.”  This devious interpretation on the part of the drafters has the purpose of demonising Assange – self-interested, maniacal, even sociopathic, they imply – while tagging, at the end, the only issue that concerns the US security apparatus: the fictional endangering of US national security. Absent here are observations and studies by the Pentagon which claimed on several occasions that there was little in way of evidence that lives had been compromised in the leak.

The same goes for former FBI types who see the accumulating dossier against Assange as an incriminating tissue of evidence.  The issue here was pre-determined; it is shut and done.  There is no broader philosophical point, because the only point that matters is realpolitik and the beating heart of the secretly minded patriot. Curiously enough, the distinction between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, ceases to exist in such circles.  We are left with the operating rationale of the big bad NSS, decked out in all its nasty, modern tinsel.

Asha Rangappa, former FBI “special agent” and editor at Just Security, is one of the NSS’s glorified commentators, even if much of her strategy lies in cringeworthy self-advertising.  She was drooling with a certain social media imbecility at the news that an 18-count superseding indictment against Assange had been issued by the Department of Justice.  “Awwwww yeah,” came her remark on Twitter.  Don the gloves; go into action: Team America needs you.

Rangappa is a wonderful illustration of a corrupted type of journalist cum commentator, one conscious of a cop culture that is celebrated rather than questioned, paraded rather than critiqued. She is even featured in Elle Magazine, with a slush-filled gooey tribute from Sylvie McNamara.  “I’m at Asha Rangappa’s dinner table because, for the past few years, her commentary on CNN and Twitter has helped hundreds of thousands of people understand the news.”

If a certain type of blinkered understanding is what you are out for, then she is your glamorous source.  She was keen on putting away “bad guys”; she “rooted for the United States to beat the Soviet Union in the Olympics”; she acknowledges who “we had to fight for our values”.  McNamara is won over, and hardly one to question. “Rangappa knows from previous experience how the FBI handles Russian spies and disinformation; add to the mix her professional skill at explaining complex ideas, and she is ideally positioned to break down the bewildering political events in recent years.”  If you consciously avoid or fail to spot the inauthenticity in any of that, then you are well on the way to joining the National Security Club.

Out of Kilter: National Security and Press Freedoms in Australia

Australian society relishes secrecy and surveillance.  Forget the laid-back, relaxed demeanour that remains the great fiction of a confected identity; like all such creations, the trace should not be mistaken as the tendency.  The political culture of Australia remains shaped by penal paranoia and an indifference to transparency.  The citizen is not to be trusted; rather, the subject is to be policed and regulated into apathetic submission.

The statute books of the federal parliament are larded with provisions of secrecy that make doing credible journalism in the country nigh impossible.  Journalists are left to their own devices, inventive as these might be, assisted by the odd prized leak.

The Australian Federal Police raids executed last month on the home of a News Corp journalist and the Sydney headquarters of the ABC had, for the clandestine community operating in the capitals of Australia, a surprise.  A usually divided fraternity came together in one voice, attempting to challenge the warrants and seek reform on matters related to press freedoms.

Media organisations would like to see parliament perform its functions, namely in the field of passing legislation that would enhance Freedom of Information provisions, arm press outlets with the means to contest warrants aimed at journalists, furnish whistleblowers with credible protections, and tilt the balance away from the national security grand inquisitor that seems to prevail in Canberra.

Understanding Canberra and the public service, however, is to understand a form of studied stasis, an effort to stymie change.  Ideas tend to go there to find cold storage if not expire altogether. The way to keep them in cold storage and throw away the key is to set up an inquiry, with all the baubles and tinsels of cheap accountability.

This is the preferred approach of the Morrison government, knowing that such an inquiry will be guaranteed to kill off any reform drive.  (Four months should do it: the inquiry is due to report on October 17.)  In his letter to the opposition leader Anthony Albanese, Prime Minister Scott Morrison informed his counterpart that, “The Government is committed to ensuring our democracy strikes the right balance between a free press and keeping Australians safe – two fundamental tenets of our democracy.”

Knowing the hostility this government, and its predecessors, have had to the only press freedom that matters – exposing abuses of state and corporate power – the limitations have already been inked.

One way of ensuring a smidgen of reform, if at all, is to use the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), a body of approved politicians who can be trusted to do the right thing by secrecy and security.  Independents are excluded; contrarians are barred. Morrison claims the PJCIS is “well placed to conduct this inquiry given its responsibility for, and experience in, handling issues concerning national security information and legislation”.  Whatever qualifications the sitting members will have, their most valued pre-requisite is the capacity for premature adjudication of the problem, adjusted to satisfy the security apologists.

Andrew Wilkie, the independent MP more qualified than most to sit on the committee, makes the point starkly.  “The Labor and Liberal-dominated PJCIS is part of the problem because it’s signed off on every unnecessary security reform in recent history.”

To permit the committee the means and latitude to decide that balance on press freedom and security would be the equivalent of granting full powers of determination to a taxidermist over your favourite pet.  Denis Muller sees this as foxes guarding henhouses or poachers overseeing game-keeping.

The PJCIS has been one of the most important entities behind approving the shabby Australian national security state, a clumsy creation that does nothing to improve security let alone preserve freedoms.  Its members are terrified by technology and the Internet, and see any effort to restrain their reach as necessary to protect Australians.

Wilkie reminds us of the dubious resume of the PJCIS. “Who could forget the controversial data retention bill of 2015 and just last year the encryption bill?  In both cases the PJCIS recommended some tweaks around the edges, but… recommended the bills be passed, despite the serious concerns about both.”  While the European Union makes strides against such inefficient and dangerous policies as data retention, Australian governments embrace them with a relish for anachronism.

The inquiry hopes to assess, in part, “Whether and in what circumstances there could be contested hearings in relation to warrants authorising investigative action in relation to journalists and media organisations; (and) the appropriateness of thresholds of law enforcement for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access electronic data on devices used by … media organisations.”  A full agenda for reform is guaranteed to be avoided.

Labor, in turn, is trying to shore up its poor parliamentary performance of late in attempting to set up a second, separate inquiry free of the clutches of the PJCIS.  That inquiry makes explicit reference to the “public’s right to know and press freedom”. Senator Kristina Keneally, shadow minister for home affairs, notes a prevailing “culture of secrecy and perverting the public’s right to know that has been making its way through this government for too long.”  In unwittingly casting such stones in the glass house, she ignores the record of previous Labor governments with similar leanings towards the national security state.

The parliamentary committee has its defenders in the Canberra set, relieved that the matter will be contained.  Jacinta Carroll, as director of national security policy at the National Security College at ANU, can be relied upon to sing the appropriate, pro-secrecy tune.  “The PJCIS is the appropriate body to undertake this review, as it’s made up of elected representatives of the people in Australia, and it’s also an established and expert body in the matter at hand.” Any praise for such committees should be met with scepticism, and her willingness to accept the supposedly useful function it performs suggests capitulation rather than engagement.

Carroll’s they-know-best tone is schoolmarmish and characterises the befuddlement of the security hacks.  She accepts, in tokenistic fashion, that, “A functioning and vibrant democracy is characterised by engaged civil society and informed debate.”  As Australian democracy is not vibrant, and lacks oxygen for a civil society struggling to fend off the regulators and spooks, her observation has little bearing on reality.

Given all that, she still insists, as the inquiry takes place, that all “maintain the focus on being informed about the complexities, nuances and competing interests at play, and not be lured into an oversimplified debate.”  Read: let bought parliamentarians seduced by national security briefs and their promoters dictate the balance.  The parents know best.