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Gordon Campbell on the Rebstock investigation of MFAT leaks

Gordon Campbell on the Rebstock investigation of the MFAT leaks

by Gordon Campbell

Having spent $510,000 of taxpayer money on her investigation into the extent and source of leaks about the controversial Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade “Change” programme, Paula Rebstock and her team of sleuths might be expected to have come up with concrete findings to justify the expense. No such luck. This is despite the fact that Rebstock & Co brought a Sherlockian level of forensic skills to bear on some potentially incriminating staples cited at para 38:

...Interviewees included Ministerial staff for all Ministers who were recipients of the Cabinet Committee papers and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Trade. This comprised 120 interviewees, some of whom were interviewed more than once. The copies of the Cabinet Committee papers were examined to determine if original staples had been removed to allow for undisclosed copying or scanning of the documents.

Wow. That looks pretty comprehensive - right down to the staples! Until you read further and find that the stewardship of the papers in question was so wide open that literally anyone could have been responsible. As acknowledged at para 42:

The investigation identified it was not possible to rule out any office as a possible source of a leak of the Cabinet Committee papers based solely on its documented processes and independent evidence...

Moreover, the Rebstock sleuths didn’t talk to everyone involved:

After these interviews and examination of the documents, the investigation decided it was unnecessary to interview another 15 Ministers who had received the Cabinet Committee papers. The investigation did not talk to all the individuals who may have handled only the Europe Posts Cabinet Committee paper which had a wider circulation than the Change Programme Cabinet Committee paper (about another 158 people of whom 43 may have accessed the paper up to 2 May 2012).

Between paras 53.1 and 53.5, the report cites all the possible ways in which security for the papers in question could have been breached. They include these poignant points:

53.1 Some agencies did not keep a log of Cabinet documents received. Evidence about what had happened to the Cabinet documents, including copies taken, who received them and where they were stored had to be reconstructed from ‘usual practice’ and sometimes did not fit with other known facts. 53.2 Some agencies kept a log of Cabinet documents received, but practice varied as to how promptly each log was updated and the level of detail recorded. Where the Cabinet documents were sent to the wrong office at one agency, it took some time to track down what had happened to them. 53.3 Some agencies scanned Cabinet documents as they arrived at the agency. This allowed for efficient distribution of the documents to those who needed access, and provided an audit trail of user access. However, the audit trail started only once the documents had been scanned and was only as useful as the information it recorded. In one case, there was 16 hours delay between receipt and scanning of the documents with no record of where the documents were held...etc etc

Oh, and furthermore:

54. Given the paper-based system for Cabinet documents with many people involved in handling the documents, from the processes described to us there were opportunities for an ill-intentioned person to gain unauthorised access to the Cabinet Committee documents within Parliament Buildings and in transit to or within government agencies. In offices where photocopiers were not activated by user IDs it was possible for staff to take unauthorised copies of the Cabinet Committee papers without leaving any evidence of this activity.

Omigosh. Lets just pray that Nicky Hager doesn’t read the Rebstock report! It might give him ideas. In passing, such candour does help to explain why the Rebstock report’s conclusions are framed solely in terms of “suspicion” as to who was the “probable” source of the leak, rather than anything that resembles certainty as to where actual responsibility can reliably be sheeted home. At times, there is a faux sense of certainty that something is up:

The investigation established that at least four people (three MFAT staff and the FSA’s Executive Secretary) were telephoned or sent texts by the Labour Party Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Trade or his office seeking information about the MFAT change programme. The investigation was unable to establish how many staff were approached for information. One staff member, who has since left MFAT, and the then-current FSA Executive Secretary, reported they were telephoned at home by the Labour Party Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Trade and spoke to him for some minutes about the MFAT change programme.

Got that? Forget it. Because in the very next paragraph we’re told:

69.22 The investigation was unable to establish whether any government information was leaked through any of seven identified calls between the Labour Party Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Trade (or his office) and MFAT staff and the FSA Executive Secretary.

Ultimately, the Rebstock report concludes by voicing its “suspicion” about a contractor and a couple of managers - all no longer with MFAT - as the “likely” source of contacts that it deems to have been improper, and that were allegedly calculated to undermine the Change policy programme at MFAT. For all the time and money involved - and for all the further impacts on morale within MFAT that this latest witch-hunt will have caused - we are left only with guesswork about the likely culprits. Not to mention being none the wiser as to whether the whistle blowing efforts in question (that were directly or tacitly supported by a wide number of senior MFAT staff) were justified.

What we do know is that the government has since backed away from the early, extreme versions of the Change programme partly because the mooted changes triggered such a backlash within MFAT ( and elsewhere in government) among people who realised what the destructive results would be on the best practice activities of this country’s diplomats. To that extent, the efforts of the leakers - whoever they were - have been subsequently endorsed by the same government that now seeks to punish them for their actions. Ultimately...the taxpayer might have got far better value for money from an investigation into the efficacy (and the costs) of the Change programme itself.


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