This story of leaked Australian government secrets is unlike any other I’ve heard:
It begins at a second-hand shop in Canberra, where ex-government furniture is sold off cheaply.
The deals can be even cheaper when the items in question are two heavy filing cabinets to which no-one can find the keys.
They were purchased for small change and sat unopened for some months until the locks were attacked with a drill.
Inside was the trove of documents now known as The Cabinet Files.
The thousands of pages reveal the inner workings of five separate governments and span nearly a decade.
Nearly all the files are classified, some as “top secret” or “AUSTEO”, which means they are to be seen by Australian eyes only.
Yes, that really happened. The person who bought and opened the file cabinets contacted the Australian Broadcasting Corp, who is now publishing a bunch of it.
There’s lots of interesting (and embarassing) stuff in the documents, although most of it is local politics. I am more interested in the government’s reaction to the incident: they’re pushing for a law making it illegal for the press to publish government secrets it received through unofficial channels.
“The one thing I would point out about the legislation that does concern me particularly is that classified information is an element of the offence,” he said.
“That is to say, if you’ve got a filing cabinet that is full of classified information … that means all the Crown has to prove if they’re prosecuting you is that it is classified nothing else.
“They don’t have to prove that you knew it was classified, so knowledge is beside the point.”
Many groups have raised concerns, including media organisations who say they unfairly target journalists trying to do their job.
But really anyone could be prosecuted just for possessing classified information, regardless of whether they know about it.
That might include, for instance, if you stumbled across a folder of secret files in a regular skip bin while walking home and handed it over to a journalist.
This illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the threat. The Australian Broadcasting Corp gets their funding from the government, and was very restrained in what they published. They waited months before publishing as they coordinated with the Australian government. They allowed the government to secure the files, and then returned them. From the government’s perspective, they were the best possible media outlet to receive this information. If the government makes it illegal for the Australian press to publish this sort of material, the next time it will be sent to the BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times, or Wikileaks. And since people no longer read their news from newspapers sold in stores but on the Internet, the result will be just as many people reading the stories with far fewer redactions.
The proposed law is older than this leak, but the leak is giving it new life. The Australian opposition party is being cagey on whether they will support the law. They don’t want to appear weak on national security, so I’m not optimistic.
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