Assange probably 'enjoying the attention': Rimington

The former head of Britain's MI5 security service says WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is probably "enjoying the media attention" while taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, but the saga will likely lead to less openness from governments.

Dame Stella Rimington, 77, now a successful spy-thriller novelist, spoke at the International Council on Archives Congress in Brisbane this morning.

Dame Rimington, who was Director General of MI5 from 1992 to 1995, used her speech to lay part of the blame for the release of sensitive US papers through WikiLeaks at America's feet for not protecting the data sufficiently.

She said America had fumbled by having a large database, labelling it 'secret' then making it available to hundreds of people, but the actions of Mr Assange in leaking thousands of the documents via WikiLeaks could have the opposite effect he had been aiming for.

"The indiscriminate leaking of all kinds of information into the public domain will undoubtedly have the effect that governments are going to look after the things they really need to keep secret," she said.

"You know there's no mistaking the fact if governments are going to protect us against the serious threats that face us in the world of terrorism then they need secrets.

"They need secrets to protect their human sources and they need secrets to protect their own operations so the indiscriminate leaking of all sorts of information is going to cause governments to protect their real secrets more carefully."

When asked for her thoughts on Mr Assange's current situation, seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Dame Rimington said she suspected he would be enjoying himself.

"As I see Julian Assange, he is a self-publicist, he is presumably rather enjoying the whole media attention he is getting and I think my government will be playing the waiting game," she said.

Dame Rimington described herself as an advocate of open government but said state secrets needed to be kept if security was a concern, and when MI5 released their archives they were always careful sources who are still alive, or had family still alive, were not identified.

She said Mr Assange put lives at risk when he published information indiscriminately and sources could have been identified from the documents.

"I'm obviously not a master of this case as I am very much an outsider now and I only know what I read in the newspapers but I think there was a certain naïveté in his approach and he seemed to think he could dump all of this information out there and it would have a beneficial effect," she said.

"Experience tells me that the effect is likely to be, in his terms, less beneficial in that more and more will be kept secret.

''I think it could result in overprotectiveness of information, yes, and that's the downside of what's happened."

A period of terrorism heralded a new era of openness from the British government during the 1990s after the secretive Cold War years because MI5 employees had to testify about their activities in court in order for terrorists to be convicted, Dame Rimington said.

She said it was welcome at the time and elected governments should have the power to decide what was secret and what was not, though the boundaries were constantly shifting depending on how dangerous the world was.

Mr Assange is facing charges of rape in Sweden and fears if he is extradited to the country he could be then sent to the US to face charges of espionage.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop