Kevin Rudd and 'harmless' WikiLeaks


During my last months as Australia's ambassador in Cambodia, I had the odd experience of reading words from a secret cable I had sent to my employers in Canberra plastered all over the front pages of a Sunday newspaper. 

I had reported the outbreak of fighting in Phnom Penh on 4 July 1997 as a long-planned insurgency by military forces loyal to Prince Ranariddh, leader of the royalist party Funcinpec, against the legitimate state authority of his co-Prime Minister, former communist Hun Sen.

While Hun Sen had been on holiday in Vietnam, Ranariddh fled without notice to Thailand, where he announced to the world that Hun Sen had staged a coup against him.

I advised my Minister that this was a last-ditch gamble by Ranariddh to recover his political fortunes. Ranariddh's power had drained away, but Hun Sen was still internationally mistrusted. I expected Ranariddh's ploy to fail, because Hun Sen had the authority at home and the steel his rival lacked.

I advised that Australia should not come out in support of Ranariddh's claim, but should await the military outcome which I predicted would soon go Hun Sen's way.

Most of this got into the Sunday newspaper, as the war still raged. I did not know whether to be proud or embarrassed: I had intended my private advice to remain private.

When I asked if the leak would be investigated, I was told not to be silly. It seemed my cabled advice had been leaked from the top, as a trial balloon: if I was wrong, I could be disowned.

Fortunately, my advice turned out to be right. Hun Sen saw off the threat, and consolidated his power. Australia accepted this outcome. I had to wear the silent reproach of valued Funcinpec and human rights movement contacts in Cambodia, who regarded me as having betrayed their cause.

I view the leaking of my cable, presumably by someone in Alexander Downer's office, as an unethical breach of trust towards me and the Australian diplomatic service.

So I have been reading the WikiLeaks controversy in recent weeks with wry amusement. Sometimes, people in high places leak embassy confidential reporting when it suits them politically to do so.

I do not regard Julian Assange as a gross villain. His actions are a salutary reminder to diplomatic professionals that their confidential reporting is always open to leakage for whatever motive, and is in that sense accountable in terms of its accuracy, relevance and timeliness.

A diplomatic reporting system of a country like Australia or the US is a very expensive private newspaper, paid for by the taxpayer. Embassies compete fiercely for the Minister's attention. Only a fraction of cable reporting will be chosen among the most important cables prepared for the Minister's office. It is a matter of pride if a reporting cable makes the cut. So embassies try hard to make their cables striking.

I took a lot of care over our cables from Phnom Penh, especially their titles and first paragraphs. Some of my colleagues wrote beautiful, crisp and exciting cable series on the unfolding of dramatic events in troubled countries, which could go straight into a book without any editing. Others wrote cables whose pomposity, laboured humour, and self-conscious striving for effect was a bit embarrassing.

The huge Assange trawl of US State Department cables will contain examples of all of the above. Let me focus on two interesting published examples.

The Dagestan wedding cable is the kind of cable that conveys the feel of an unfamiliar cultural setting. A foreign office needs to have this kind of information, in making judgements (for example) about how to advise national companies thinking of opening up business operations in such places: how law-based or corrupt, how effective or incompetent, is a particular regional or national government?

Since the time of Renaissance diplomacy, good diplomats have used invitations to functions like high-level state weddings to make and report such frank judgements. I don't regard the Daghestan cable as trivial: there is a role for this kind of local colour reporting, as long as it is politically relevant.

Here, Assange's violation of confidentiality was only mildly embarrassing: the US Embassy in Moscow could live with fewer invitations to state weddings in Dagestan.

On the other hand, to have made public disparaging embassy views on current national leaders like the presidents of Russia or France could make more difficult the tasks of future US ambassadors striving to develop good rapport with national presidents. This is the source of Hilary Clinton's professional anger.

But I thought the description of Putin as an 'alpha male' was quite apt, and one of which indeed he might be quite proud.

Kevin Rudd's conversation with Clinton on China as reported in the US cable system will help the Gillard Government and Rudd to fend off any opposition canards that Rudd might be too soft on China. It gives veracity to similar things Rudd often says on China publicly, and won't shock the Chinese.

I was amused by Rudd's language. He was keen to impress Clinton with his sagacity on China. I suspect she may have gone away from this meeting wondering if he had gone a bit over the top in characterising himself as a 'brutal realist' on China.

This cable confirms much about the nature of the US-Australian relationship. As ever, Australia is Thomas the Tank Engine, striving to prove its worth as a useful and loyal ally. And as ever, a bemused but polite US is trying to reassure Australia its contribution is valued. This cable speaks volumes about Australian insecurity and diplomatic immaturity.

On balance, I welcome the WikiLeaks trawl. We have seen in recent years much disastrous misuse by the US, British and Australian governments of their classified diplomatic and intelligence reporting systems. I think here principally of the false intelligence before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which took hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives for no commensurate strategic or humanitarian benefits.

It is good to see the other side getting a few runs on the board, in holding what governments say and do to public account. It can do no great harm, and may in the longer run do some good.  

Tony KevinTony Kevin retired from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998, after a 30-year public service career in DFAT and Prime Minister's Department. He was Australia's ambassador to Poland (1991–94) and Cambodia (1994–97). 

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Wikileaks, Julian Assange, leaked cables, Kevin Rudd, Hilary Clinton, China, Beijing



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Existing comments

Tony, thanks for your valuable personal insights into the history of Cambodia. Your comments make sense and are appreciated. Working as an Australian Business Volunteer in Cambodia Higher Education for over nine years such fleshing out the evolution of the CPP is a balance to the almost univeral negative reporting of the Khmer peoples. i am continualy surprised at the size of the Australian delegaion in Phnom Penh but reckon that on balance Australians should be proud of DEFAT's helping to overcome Cambodia's Aid Dependancy and assisting the Khmer people create their own wealth. As for Wiki Leaks I rejoice they cut through much political double speak. Julia's harsh words disappointed me greatly. Michael S Parer Norton University, Developing Cambodia by Degrees, Phnom Penh, Camboida
Michael Parer | 07 December 2010

There may be some benefits from the publication of frank confidential comments by diplomats, such as the Rudd and Clinton exchange of views, but there can also be disadvantages. These include the possible self-censorship of intelligent opinions, even guesses,from our overseas representatives who are in the best position judge the possibilities.

Traditionally, these thoughts or opinions are not shouted out publicly. Many of us have adopted similar tactics in the small worlds of our workplaces. Colleagues may dislike or feel threatened by some fellow workers but need to work and cooperate with them. Under these circumstances the sensible behaviour is to remain cheerful and polite in dealing with others whatever our inner thoughts and feelings. As diplomats usually do.

Bob Corcoran | 07 December 2010

Tony Kevin's remarks about diplomatic communications of the type released by Wikileaks, being just expensive private taxpayer funded newspapers are very pertinent. I can see here that the Australian government will line up with its senior peers who have taken it down dead end roads before [WMD etc] rather than defend the rights of one of its citizens to free speech etc. Falling in line with other governments is simply a knee jerk reaction on the part of the government. It should be careful from now on when it criticises the Chinese for similar behaviour. Leaving Assange to be hung out to dry, with no chance of leaking makes me feel very insecure and not at all proud of our leaders who are supposed to be in the business of protecting us.
Tony London | 07 December 2010

We will decide what is leaked from our diplomats and the circumstances in which it is leaked.
David Arthur | 07 December 2010

Tony Kevin's article is interesting for its insights into how circumspect advice to a Minister can be publicised for whatever advantage the leaker can get out of it. I did not see anything in Rudd's comments that a more public analysis would be likely to contradict (although I doubt there is anything more public than Rudds comments now). If anything, they support Tony's view of the Aussie-US relationship.

I suspect that the longer term consequence of Mr Assange's work will be that diplomats and politicians will be more guarded in their private comments, unless they want them to filter into the public domain. Not necessarily a bad thing either.

Brian Storm | 07 December 2010

Assange has done the world a service, but the true heroes are those who are sending him the films and documents.

Shame rains down on the heads of Gillard and MCClelland though for claiming he is a criminal.
Marilyn Shepherd | 08 December 2010


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