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Protected source

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 29 March 2011

According to information released by WikiLeaks, through The Sydney Morning Herald, Mark Arbib was a 'protected source' of the American Embassy in Canberra.

Writing in The Good Weekend on 12 March, Nikki Barrowclough says in an article, "The Power of One", American diplomatic cables refer to Arbib as 'a tough political operator and evidence-based strategic thinker' who had met with embassy representatives 'repeatedly throughout his political rise'. In other words he met with US representatives over a period of time on a frequent basis over a number of years.

Questioned by Barrowclough, Arbib said he was not aware of what the term 'protected source' might mean. Barrowclough asked him had he contacted the American embassy to find out. "He says that the US ambassador, Jeffrey Bleich, rang him. 'I asked him, What is a protected source? He said, The story is rubbish, and that the protect reference next to my name was in relation to conversations being my own view and not that of the government'.


Now if Arbib is to be believed that would be a strange construction to put on the term, 'protected source'. More likely one or both are dissembling. Perhaps Bleich was engaging in a bit of a white wash or Arbib sought to hide the real nature of the relationship.

The term 'protected source' is widely used in the world of diplomacy. It means that a particular person, who is a source of useful information to the embassy, should be protected. A protected source would usually be a person who provides valuable information over a period of time.

The classification means that the identity of the person should be restricted and not widely used in correspondence or other diplomatic communication unless it carries the caveat 'protected source' or 'this informant should be protected' and the communiqué given at least the classification of 'Confidential'. Unless these requirements are met the information provided by a protected source should not be used in association with his/her name.

From time to time information given by a source but not a protected source might carry the caveat 'please protect' which means for that particular piece of information the source should be protected.

For instance in the case of Arbib it would mean that in conversations with other embassies, business organisations, members of the Labor Party and Coalition when information provided by Arbib was being discussed his name would not be associated with it.

A protected source usually has something to hide or fear should information provided to an embassy become known to their government or appear in the media. For instance in Apartheid South Africa when I reported conversations that I had with Steve Biko and other black activists I would always say please protect or the embassy regards Biko or Donald Woods as a protected source of information.


In my experience the term 'protected source' usually applies to ongoing information of a sensitive nature. If a security policeman was to become a source of information relating to the torture of activists in prison and provided names of those tortured and details of their injuries that person would be a protected source.

Equally a person providing ongoing details of problems associated with Saudi oil production or the means used by South Africa to break sanctions or produce nuclear weapons would be regarded as a protected source.

Sometimes protected source information is provided with idealistic or altruistic motivation; sometimes in the belief that the recipient of the information has the power to effect change in the political or personal circumstances surrounding the source of that information. Sometimes the supply of protected source information is assisted by an exchange of something of value, or some other consideration which establishes a quid pro quo. But whatever the motivation and terms both parties to the transaction see a need to protect the source.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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