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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.

Published On Line Opinion and ABC Unleashed 23 March 2011

It beggars belief that the Minister for Immigration, the luckless Chris Bowen, should seek to punish refugees on Christmas Island for the problem he has created.

Kirsty Needham reports in the Sydney Morning Herald, 19-20 March, that Bowen warned, “200 asylum seekers involved in violent protests on Christmas Island may have their visas revoked or blocked on character grounds, even if it had already been found they were genuine refugees”; it is the same as the mean and narrow John Howard saying, “We will determine who comes here and when”.

A refugee is a refugee and that determination cannot be altered by whim of a weak minister or the paranoid political imperatives of a puerile prime minister.

Held in over-crowded conditions without information as to the progress of so called security clearances, hope drained from already traumatised individuals. Working, unlike the Department of Immigration, on the basis that most people are decent, these individuals are well aware of the merits of their case. They are suffering not only acute depression but a substantial sense of injustice.

Ninety-five, maybe ninety-eight percent of refugees arriving by boat are genuine. Twenty to thirty percent arriving by plane are found to be refugees and they constitute by far and away the greatest number of refugee applicants.

The actions of Gillard and Bowen and the vitriolic statements of Abbott and Scott Morrison, his putative spokesperson on immigration, are a disgrace. Little wonder that apart from a few sycophantic journalists, the majority of Australians have little respect for politicians and the politics of the major parties; short term gain for the long term pain of trashing democracy.

Refugees are people; in fact they are future Australian citizens. We will expect them to work, raise families, participate in community and sporting activities and, if necessary, for them and their children to fight for Australia. What a great start we are giving them with rubber bullets and tear gas from a vengeful government.

Gillard believes these protesters to be criminals just as she believes Julian Assange to be a terrorist; a strange set of values for someone claiming the authority to lead this country. Not everyone in Australia lacks a moral compass, most, and there are many, do not scream their beliefs like some aging shock jock, they quietly go about their business with a sense of growing disquiet if not outrage.

Gillard, Bowen, Abbott and Morrison, poll driven, you are deluding your selves. You are on the path to being yesterday’s people. You have misjudged Australia and Australians they are not the people you are playing up to.

Who authorised the AFP to carrying ‘bean bag’ weaponry to Christmas Island and why? Bowen was reported on the ABC as saying he had no idea what ‘bean bag’ bullets were until they were explained to him after their initial use on the island.

Surely the minister should have been approached to authorise their use. It was a first in Australia, a matter, I would have thought, that required ministerial consideration and specific authorisation. This does not appear to have been the case. The question then arises, who is in charge? Bowen gives every appearance of being led by the nose. Immigration, the AFP and ASIO seem to be able to do and say what they with respect to refugee policy.
The unlovely Sandy Logan, spokesperson for Immigration and recruited from the AFP, said on ABC radio that rubber bullets had not been used on Christmas Island, two days later we find this is not true, that rubber bean bags had in fact been fired. Maybe Logan did not know in which case the AFP are once again out of control.

All accounts point to the initial demonstrations being peaceful, it was only after the use of force, grossly excessive use of force, by the AFP, that the internees turned nasty – and who wouldn’t. A disturbing feature of this is that it would seem the AFP are now armed and authorised (by whom?) to use rubber bullets against elements deemed hostile to the state, which in a demonstration against say unauthorised detention could be you and me or our children. These weapons are apparently now part of the instruments of state coercion, first unveiled against the most needy and traumatised in our society. Remember Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Next it will be aboriginals, then the unemployed.

Bowen needs to get control of himself and his portfolio. ASIO needs to be pulled into line. The intemperance of its decision making needs to be reformed. It is not good enough that an organisation with so many resources should take so long to obtain security clearances. In many cases illegal, as they are ‘obtained’ from the very authorities that the asylum seekers are fleeing. In any case, a person granted asylum does not need a security clearance; that is done as part of the refugee determination. ASIO is double dipping with what appears to be the intention of slowing down the intake of refugees. The aim being to deter arrivals by it becoming known that long periods will be spent in detention with an outcome that is not assured; hence the desire to return asylum seekers to home countries on spurious information and analysis.

Place too many living things within an enclosed space and inevitably they will turn on each other and if they have the capacity against those that hold the keys. The fact that Bowen, Scott, et al, cannot see this speaks volumes about the type of person now attracted to a political career.

The treatment handed out to the protesting refugees on Christmas Island was cruel and calculated revenge. Why do Immigration, the AFP and ASIO, shock jocks and the political ruling class hate refugees? What have they to fear? Why do they respond to and feed the hysteria?

Over the past seven months five refugees have died in detention. No words of care or compassion. No change in policy.

It is pathetic, truly pathetic.

Published ABC Unleashed on 11 March and The Canberra Times and On iIne Opinion on 14 March.

With the Middle East in the throes of a major political re-alignment, the best Julia Gillard can say in Washington is to praise the US position on Israel and to flick the question on a no fly zone over Libya to the UN, while Rudd continues to press for it. Asked as to a possible Australian contribution to a Middle East initiative by the West she responded that Libya was a long way from Australia – so is Afghanistan.

Rudd presses for a no fly zone when Australia has no capacity to contribute. The F35 program to supply Australia with jet fighters has stalled in the face of financial and developmental problems in the US. The Australian Air Force is in a similar position to the Navy, it does not have the assets to project and maintain a force offshore. At the moment Australia is an unreliable military ally.

Did Gillard touch upon these difficulties and shortcomings in Washington?

As speeches go Gillard’s address to Congress was cringe making, it was not the sort of speech one would expect to hear from the leader of an independent country.

I heard no words from Gillard about the need for the fundamental reform of the US financial system, access of Australian beef and other agricultural produce, of the need to withdraw from Afghanistan, of Australian determination to protect the rights of Julian Assange and of concern at US prevarication over the unfolding events in North Africa.

We do not need to blow our trumpet over our escape from the GFC. Our saviour was China, not the Australian Treasury and certainly not the USA who caused it.

It was the speech of a leader of a Vassal State. It was a speech Harold Holt would have been proud of, ‘All the way with the USA’. Why did she make it? It was an unnecessary suck, unless of course we are being softened up for an announcement that the US will station increased military assets in Australia and this was an attempt to show a close relationship in order to justify an bolstering an American military presence. Are we about to become a pawn in the evolving competition between China and the US?

Mind you it might be useful to have some functioning US naval and airpower stationed in Australia in view of the lack of our own assets and manpower.

Gillard’s speech was as unedifying as it was revealing. It was the speech of a bully. Suck-up and kick down. She is the Prime Minister who keeps refugee children in detention and Aboriginals in limbo. She has neither the wit nor wisdom to solve these outstanding problems involving the most vulnerable in our society. How she could hold her head up in Washington is amazing.

The carbon tax is a dog; arrogance and political ineptitude have dominated in dumping the skeleton of a proposal on the Australian public without dialogue and consultation, without flesh, blood, muscle and brain there can be no discussion. Tony Abbott is a known quantity, he is a spoiler, by going off half cocked she played right into his hands, in the absence of a firm proposal he can say what he likes.

She and Tony Bourke buckled, or rather were out bullied, by a few angry and ill-informed farmers over water reform. She gives no indication of understanding the fundamentals of the issue and its importance to the future of the nation. Short term political needs have been allowed to dominate.

Gillard might have been better advised to have sought an American commitment to stabilising Libya and seeking the establishment of democracy. The Middle East is an important trading block for Australian, along with many other countries it is a vital source of oil.

Rather than pandering to fragile egos, she might have sought to stiffen US resolve. Their foreign policy in the Middle East is in tatters. Despite considerable intelligence resources they failed to predict the current upheavals and have no policy in place to handle such a crisis. If the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were to make the world a better place, why the hesitation over Libya?

It would be safer to assume that those interventions were all about the US after 9/11. If we allow that the conduct of US foreign policy and diplomacy is all about furthering and protecting the US national interest, what was Gillard on about?

The US needs a safe and stable base in the south in its developing rivalry with China. They will smooch us to that end. Do we want to be that base? If we do it is incumbent that we extract concessions that are in our national interest such getting the ban lifted on the export of the F22A in order that Australia might purchase sufficient of the fighters to bridge the gap before the F35 comes on stream. We might seek compensation for the early and untoward demise of the Manoora and Kanimbla sold as rust buckets in a shonky deal.

A little bit more restraint and real national pride on the world stage might enhance Australia more than the performance we have just witnessed from Julia in the US; her ‘All the way’ will not win us a seat on the Security Council. We will be seen as just another US vote.