WikiLeaks' revelations of the “secrets” of global diplomacy weren't that secret, says Dame Stella Rimington, novelist and former Director general of MI5.
Speaking in Australia, where she today delivered an address to the International Council on Archives conference , Rimington told The Reg that one of the issues public sector archivists need to deal with is what they do given at a time when much communication takes place casually. Prime Ministerial TXT messages, for example, may be key to reconstructing events for which the public rightly wants them to be held to account and therefore belong in public archives.
Capturing such material, she said, needs careful consideration because some of it may be worthy of classification as secret. And when information is truly secret, she says it is treated with extreme care.
“Governments need to be able to keep secrets, especially secret services, to protect us in a difficult world,” she said. That observation led her to offer an opinion on WikiLeaks, which she says probably didn't publish anything significantly secret.
Stressing that she has no inside knowledge of Assange-related escapades, Rimington said she understands – as does the rest of the world – that the dump of diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks came from Bradley Manning, who she described as “a young soldier.”
“If it is all such sensitive stuff why was it available to a young soldier,” she asked. “If you do have secrets you must look after them and limit access to them.”
“That's coupled with the vetting of your people [because] if you have incredibly top secret information you must protect it. You must limit access - that does not seem that difficult - so that only in the most inside layer is there access for those who need to know.”
“It seems to it seems to me that there was a so-called secret database was enormous and available to a huge number of people,” which means the content simply wasn't that sensitive.
Rimington also said she feels Prime Ministerial TXTs won't be able to justify tighter controls, as the public rightly wants accountability for elected officials.
“I don't think the line between essential secrecy and appropriate openness changes because of fast communications,” she said. “You can only have it [archived material] effectively if the record is complete.”
She's also not sure archivists can keep up in a world in which “resources are limited and information increases exponentially.”
But she feels linking different sources of public data will help.
“Genealogists and the like can link collections all over the world, all ensuring that greater amounts of information are available to be used by people who want to use it. Huge amounts of data are made easier to access.”
But she also lamented that, in polite conversation about the role of public archives, “everything is focusing on this WikiLeaksy thing.” ®