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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 08:07 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 08:07 | SYDNEY

Psst...secrets aren\'t that important

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2 December 2010 14:23

A couple more points to reinforce yesterday's post about Wikileaks and the lure of classified information.

Much has has been made of the revelation in the cables that Saudi Arabia is so concerned about Iran's nuclear program that King Abdullah (pictured) urged the US to conduct a military strike. As I argued yesterday, it is dangerous to assume that this information can be trusted just because it is secret and the Saudi leader was speaking in private. The Saudis have an agenda all their own; as this blogger points out, it might suit them to foment war between the US and Iran.

Another point I made yesterday is that secret information is not necessarily a better guide to events than what we know from open sources. In this case, we have to ask: how does this apparent Saudi concern about Iran's nuclear program, as revealed by Wikileaks, stack up against what Saudi Arabia has actually done to stop this program'

Or, to sharpen the question, if the Saudi king wants a military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, what's stopping him' He has the second most powerful air force in the region (numerically at least), and has just signed another gargantuan arms deal with Washington (the biggest US defence deal ever, in fact). If he's really so concerned, why hasn't he acted'

The likely explanation, of course, is that Saudi Arabia has a number of competing foreign and domestic interests which would be damaged by such a course of action, and that the threat does not justify the risks of a military strike. We know all of this by examining the public record and thinking through the various scenarios.

As I said yesterday, it is tempting to believe that some breakthrough piece of information will help us to solve a given political problem. But not even a direct line into the North Korean politburo would change the basic dynamics of that dispute. Hell, the communists had a spy in the West German Chancellor's office during the Cold War, for all the good it did them.

One reason there is so much emphasis (in journalism and the intelligence world) on uncovering secrets is that, in a sense, it is an easy problem to address — if you throw more resources and better technology at it, you will usually be rewarded with some startling new piece of information. In journalism, revealing secrets can be an end in itself. But in the intelligence world, this effort can only be considered worthwhile if it appreciably improves our command of events. And there are cases where intelligence serves that purpose — the killing of Admiral Yamamoto comes to mind.

But often the problem is not that we have too little information, it is that we fail to correctly interpret the vast amount of information we have. That's a far more difficult problem to solve.

Photo by Flickr user Ammar Abd Rabbo, used under a Creative commons license.

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