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Published Canberra Times 23 March 2011

According to information released by WikiLeaks, through The Sydney Morning Herald, Mark Arbib was a ‘protected source’ of the American Embassy in Canberra.

Writing in The Good Weekend on 12 March, Nikki Barrowclough says in an article, “The Power of One”, American diplomatic cables refer to Arbib as ‘a tough political operator and evidence-based strategic thinker’ who had met with embassy representatives ‘repeatedly throughout his political rise’. In other words he met with US representatives over a period of time on a frequent basis over a number of years.

Questioned by Barrowclough, Arbib said he was not aware of what the term ‘protected source’ might mean. Barrowclough asked him had he contacted the American embassy to find out. “He says that the US ambassador, Jeffrey Bleich, rang him. ‘I asked him, What is a protected source? He said, The story is rubbish, and that the protect reference next to my name was in relation to conversations being my own view and not that of the government’.

Now if Arbib is to be believed that would be a strange construction to put on the term, ‘protected source’. More likely one or both are dissembling. Perhaps Bleich was engaging in a bit of a white wash or Arbib sought to hide the real nature of the relationship.

The term ‘protected source’ is widely used in the world of diplomacy. It means that a particular person, who is a source of useful information to the embassy, should be protected. A protected source would usually be a person who provides valuable information over a period of time.

The classification means that the identity of the person should be restricted and not widely used in correspondence or other diplomatic communication unless it carries the caveat ‘protected source’ or ‘this informant should be protected’ and the communiqué given at least the classification of ‘Confidential’. Unless these requirements are met the information provided by a protected source should not be used in association with his/her name.

From time to time information given by a source but not a protected source might carry the caveat ‘please protect’ which means for that particular piece of information the source should be protected.

For instance in the case of Arbib it would mean that in conversations with other embassies, business organisations, members of the Labor Party and Coalition when information provided by Arbib was being discussed his name would not be associated with it.

A protected source usually has something to hide or fear should information provided to an embassy become known to their government or appear in the media. For instance in Apartheid South Africa when I reported conversations that I had with Steve Biko and other black activists I would always say please protect or the embassy regards Biko or Donald Woods as a protected source of information.

In my experience the term ‘protected source’ usually applies to ongoing information of a sensitive nature. If a security policeman was to become a source of information relating to the torture of activists in prison and provided names of those tortured and details of their injuries that person would be a protected source.

Equally a person providing ongoing details of problems associated with Saudi oil production or the means used by South Africa to break sanctions or produce nuclear weapons would be regarded as a protected source.

Sometimes protected source information is provided with idealistic or altruistic motivation; sometimes in the belief that the recipient of the information has the power to effect change in the political or personal circumstances surrounding the source of that information. Sometimes the supply of protected source information is assisted by an exchange of something of value, or some other consideration which establishes a quid pro quo. But whatever the motivation and terms both parties to the transaction see a need to protect the source.

Information in the world of diplomacy is a tradeable resource. It doesn’t matter which diplomat you talk to, once a conversation with any substance has taken place it becomes a tradeable commodity. If it regarded as a matter of importance it will be recorded on return the office and dispatched to the home government by secure means. It is known as a record of conversation.

Arbib appears naive about the devious workings of the world of diplomacy. Barrowclough writes, “He has insisted there’s nothing unusual about politicians talking to the Americans: it’s all part of the Australia-US alliance”.

For instance if the Americans received information of significance from Arbib that they thought could be of interest to China they might initiate an exchange, maybe over dinner, where they might indicate they had something of interest to convey (trade). They would initiate or steer the conversation toward an issue they sought clarification or information on. The conversation might then move inconclusively with both parties, perhaps the Ambassadors, agreeing to meet the next day for coffee and at that point, if all went well, there would be a subtle and discrete exchange information.

Diplomats exchange or trade information with a range of contacts including foreign correspondents and local journalists, the latter, if any good, will provide useful information on the strengths and weaknesses of politicians. It would be interesting to know who provided background on Arbib. Diplomats and foreign correspondents are engaged in gathering information on all aspects of the country or countries they are reporting on. They therefore have much in common.

A professional diplomat will advise senior officers and colleagues of contacts made over a period (day/week) and the substance of conversations that took place. He or she will do a note for file on the main points in the conversation.

When I was in South Africa I could eat well in Johannesburg on the basis of providing background on events unfolding in Soweto, because I went there once or twice a week and in return I received information on Rhodesia, which we were not allowed to travel to and on conversations with cabinet ministers. But as in all things you had to trust your source.

A protected source is also someone that over a period of time the embassy has learnt to trust in terms of the information provided. They will have verified the veracity of key pieces of information from other sources. Cross referencing information is an important and ongoing process.

In view of the dynamics of the diplomatic market place there is no such thing as a benign or friendly country. Arbib should have been aware of this but clearly he was not.

Recently there has been talk of public and private diplomacy. Public diplomacy is said to consist of pleasant platitudes and private diplomacy is said to be where the tough talking is done, perhaps; one can imagine the US putting the hard word on members of the Gulf Co-operation Council to agree to a Saudi intervention in Bahrain as they seek to shore up the status quo in the Gulf.

Equally, however, private diplomacy can consist of weak talk and poor compromises. Australia rarely engaged in tough talk with the Indonesians over East Timor, which meant the intervention, when it came, was a shock. I have seen Ambassadorial hands tremble when required to make contentious representations.

Ambassadors like to be liked. Public diplomacy on issues such as human rights, climate change and corruption is far more effective than a knee rub behind closed doors. It is on the public record, which as WikiLeaks has shown is good for democracy.

Arbib is unlikely to have betrayed his country, Australia does not deal in those sorts of secrets, but he has betrayed himself and perhaps his party.