Keeping Cabinet secrets safe

Keeping Cabinet secrets, image by Ricky Lynch

Zounds, it’s only the ninth day of February and some records have been set, including the biggest ever accidental leaking of Cabinet secrets. In un-related news, the weather bureau said last Saturday (the 3rd) was the coldest February day in 100 years. We didn’t have a fire on because we had no dry wood, but some Hinterland folks were better organised. BOM said it was 18 degrees but with the rain, fog and all-day and all night drizzle, it felt like 16.

Our New Zealand, Canadian and UK friends and relatives would no doubt scoff at 16-18 degrees being described as chilly. But this is the sub tropics after all, and a week earlier we were enduring temperatures in the mid-30s.

Although it was comparatively balmy in Canberra last weekend (25/10, 27/14), the atmosphere was decidedly chillier. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull turned up for the ABC’s Insiders programme on Sunday vowing that “heads would roll” over the accidental disposal of two filing cabinets full of Cabinet secrets.

The cabinets went to a Canberra second hand office furniture store and were purchased by a citizen who later drilled them open. The (Parliamentary) Cabinet papers dating back 10 years, many marked Top Secret or AUSTEO (Australian Eyes Only), were handed to the ABC. The national broadcaster published nine stories based on the Cabinet secrets over the following days before explaining how they came into the broadcaster’s possession. The ABC deemed some material too sensitive for publication because of national security issues.

In the meantime, Australia’s spy agency ASIO visited ABC headquarters in Sydney and Brisbane and negotiated secure storage for the documents and eventually reclaimed the Cabinet secrets.

Patrick Weller, Griffith University’s Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, judged that the use of the papers by the ABC seemed random. “The ABC was probably aware they had limited time to play the story before it became public and everyone else jumped aboard,” he wrote in The Conversation.

“The story was more about the filing cabinets than the cabinet papers, about the carelessness rather than the content,” Prof. Weller said.

Prof. Weller argued that the leaking of (historical) Cabinet papers is not such a disaster for governments in that they are often time specific, advising about matters long forgotten and maybe even now seen as minor incidents.

As the rules go, historical Cabinet papers are made available after 30 years; once a year in January we get to see another batch. They make for interesting reading if you are a historian or a political academic, but rarely anything more than that. Prof Weller says most Cabinet papers could be released within five years. Only a few would matter.

International eyes on sloppy Aussies

Nevertheless, the story caught the attention of the world’s media and Australia’s international allies – the US, Canada, the UK and New Zealand. The Washington Post commissioned a piece from Australian writer Richard Glover, who pithily summarised the Cabinet secrets affair as “Deep Drawers”.

As Glover observed, the key problem with the sale of unchecked government furniture is that anyone could have bought them, then handed their contents to a foreign agent or government.

He quoted Andrew Wilkie, a former intelligence analyst now sitting MP: “It sends a signal to our intelligence partners and allies that Australia might not be trustworthy when it comes to sharing information and intelligence with us.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Sunday the “shocking failure” would be fully investigated and the people responsible held accountable.

The idea that public servants, entrusted with highly confidential documents, would put them in a safe, lock the safe, lose the keys, and then sell the safe without checking what was in it – it beggars belief,” he told Insiders

It’s not just governments. Forbes magazine guest writer Mark Emery, director of a document management company, cited examples of big organisations mishandling confidential data. They included paper documents from four hospitals in Massachusetts found un-shredded in a public dumping facility. Another hospital in the same state admitted that personal records of 800,000 people were “missing”.

In Dallas, Texas, prisoners on parole were allowed to work off community service hours by sorting and shredding confidential documents, such as birth certificates and medical records. The practice was scrapped in 2012.

Richard Glover mentions similar circumstances in the 1990s when diplomatic bags were sent to be laundered at Wandsworth prison in the UK. In 1991, Canada’s diplomatic bags (full of top-secret NATO documents)  were mistakenly sent there too, and went missing soon after.

Mistakes happen, in business, in government and in our private lives. Who has not sent a sensitive email intended for one person to many people? The digital data system is just as prone to this kind of mishap as the traditional paper file system.

When computers first started becoming dominant in business (in the 1990s), we were sold the myth of the “paperless office”. Twenty years later, even a micro-business like mine goes through a couple of reams of paper per month. Most people I know who run any kind of consulting business buy a shredder and keep it working (don’t forget to take staples out first!)

Last year in Sydney and Melbourne there were reports of medical files and legal papers found dumped in unlocked kerbside recycling bins. When stories like this make it into the media, they should at least make individuals aware of the need for safeguarding sensitive information.

In the 1980s, I’d been court reporting in a country city for several years. I always archived my jumbo-size reporters’ notebooks – filled on both sides with untidy scrawl – a mix of shorthand and my unique form of notetaking. The second time we moved house, I looked at the four archive boxes full of musty notebooks and decided I had to get rid of them.

I found a waste recycling firm which offered “secure disposal”. They dropped off a big wheelie bin at my place, the lid secured with chains and a padlock. Once I’d filled it up, I called the firm and they picked up the bin. The firm assured me the notebooks would be “burned or pulped”. This exercise cost $75, but what a salve for my conscience. The majority of matters heard in court never make it into the news or are briefly summarised. More importantly, magistrates and judges may decide to supress reporting. There was an example of a district court trial where I took copious notes only to find out that the defendants’ and plaintiffs’ names could not be published. Later a blanket ban was issued and we couldn’t print anything. Notwithstanding, a good court reporter will write everything down – better to have too much than not enough.

So that’s why I was feeling suitably smug, all these years later, when the strange case of “Deep Drawers” hit the news. It’s hard enough to keep secrets secret in the era of digital ‘cloud’ storage, super hackers and whistle-blowers. But Richard Glover’s oblique reference to “Deep Throat” (nickname of the Watergate source), nevertheless reminds us that if we want to discard sensitive paper files, dispose of them as I did.

If that was all a little heavy for an early autumn Friday, here’s a few songs about February to help you cope with the cold (or the heat).

The list did not include February, a poignant tune by Dar Williams, but here it is anyway.


2 thoughts on “Keeping Cabinet secrets safe”

  1. This comment is highly germane to your story and introduces a more serious note into the trivial matter of national secrets being sold off as ballast in filing cabinets – Bob don’t sit in the cold again – we have plenty of dry firewood just 10 min drive away from FOMM Central – you only need to ask. We lit a fire last week it was certainly cold enough here. (!!)

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