Wikileaks illustrates need for Information Ombudsman: ex-CIA Robert Baer

Whistleblower site serving a public need, but still problematic, security expert argues

Ex-CIA field officer and security expert, Robert Baer.

Ex-CIA field officer and security expert, Robert Baer.

The rise of whistleblower site Wikileaks has highlighted the need for governments to create new offices or agencies to increase the transparency and flow of sensitive information between government and the public, according to former CIA field officer and middle east security expert, Robert Baer.

Speaking to Computerworld Australia, Baer, a Middle East security expert and the basis for George Clooney’s character in the film Syriana, said governments should look to appoint inspector generals or create independent bodies tasked with managing the public disclosure of information - such as that related to the war in Afghanistan - and avoiding potential damage to state security stemming from leaks from private citizens.

“[There should be] an ombudsman with a 10 year tenure, which can’t be renewed, which has staff who can read and write and understand things and tear through this stuff… and come out with reports on [the state of intelligence] which say we are in trouble or we are blind in Afghanistan so that people like me, who are doubters, can go along with that credibility.

"[The ombudsman] wouldn’t have to release details of why we are blind. In the United States we have [security] committees but they are all run by politics – they have to defend the White House.”

In the meantime, Wikileaks, despite criticism from the US government over its ability to endanger the war effort and the safety of troops serving in Afghanistan, did have an important role to play in informing the public.

“As long as the [US] government is lying to us, we need Wikileaks,” Baer said. “If we weren’t in this war based on very blatant propaganda… and if you had the government of the United States sort-of telling the truth ­– we are losing [the war in Afghanistan] or that [Afghanistan president, Hamid] Karzai is corrupt – if there was any forthcoming information, then we wouldn’t need Wikileaks.”

Despite the site’s potential to provide greater government transparency, Wikileaks was still to some extent a threat to national security as it effectively allowed a private individual ­– founder Julian Assange – to determine what should be legitimately withheld from the public and what not, Baer said.

“[Wikileaks] is very problematic as there truly are some secrets,” he said. “There are diplomatic communications which are secrets. And someone like me shouldn’t be able to go out and decide that they shouldn’t be secrets.

“Normally secrecy is… most of it is bullshit. [Government agencies] are classifying things which [they] shouldn’t, but you are coming down to the question, ‘Who decides that?’"

Cyber insecurity

Baer, who is in Sydney to present at the Security 2010 Exhibition and Conference, was also critical of western governments' ability to secure their own countries from a cyber attack in the advent of a cyber war, particularly with China.

“There is no such thing as cyber security…” he said. “There is no defence against the Chinese. They are so into the American systems.

“The Chinese, what they are doing is sending intelligence officers to California to Google or whoever, on internships… and they are actually spying. No one is focusing on it. They know our systems."

Not only did governments have to come up with ways to better address national security threats travelling via the internet, but also via seemingly innocuous routes such as power cables.

“In the CIA we had a rule that no-one could use a computer which was connected to the internet or to a power source. Computers are vulnerable to attacks from power sources,” Baer claimed. “If you control the building you can put a surge into the computer and it damages it. It also dumps things onto the [computer via] the electrical wire. It shows changes.”

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