Scrutiny or Secrecy? You Decide


In the lead-up to the war on Iraq the three countries that advocated war most strongly – the US, UK and Australia – released or referred to intelligence that indicated Iraq was a serious and immediate threat to justify invasion.

When, in February 2003, it was revealed that a British intelligence document which supported this conclusion was in fact a student’s thesis, questions began to be asked about the quality of intelligence being relied upon by the three pro-war countries.

In Australia, in June 2003 the Senate referred the question of the quality of intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on ASIO, ASIS and DSD.

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<p><span><small>Thanks to <a href=Peter Nicholson at The Australian

Although the committee concluded, in December that year, that the Government overplayed the extent and immediacy of the threat posed by Iraq, it did not suggest that the Government had deliberately misrepresented the intelligence. And there was certainly no suggestion that the Government used intelligence on the threat posed by Iraq’s alleged WMD to justify a war it had decided to prosecute on entirely different grounds.

Despite some evidence at the time that this might be the case – such as the resignation of Andrew Wilkie from the Office of National Assessments in protest at the Australian Government’s ‘spinning’ of the intelligence on Iraq – for many who read the report or the media accounts, the committee’s finding was the end of the story. A committee of the parliament had formed its conclusions and, with all of the resources at its disposal and its bipartisan membership, they could not be anything other than objective, comprehensive and beyond doubt. Or could they?

In 2004 I conducted a study of Australian parliamentary committees that throws into question this assumption. My study (which included interviews with committee members and staff as well as with current and former members of the intelligence community) investigated the barriers that prevent parliamentary committees from exercising robust scrutiny over government decisions in the sensitive fields of foreign and national security policy. It found that Australia’s parliamentary committees cannot necessarily be relied upon to keep the government in check when it comes to making sensitive foreign policy decisions – including sending Australian soldiers to war.

For a start, the usual barriers that confound most parliamentary committees come into play, including obfuscatory techniques employed by public servants, serving and former ministers who refuse to appear before an inquiry and committees that are unwilling to exercise the full range of their coercive powers, for fear of being accused of heavy-handedness or suffering retribution when the political tables are turned.

More intractable barriers, however, exist for inquiries into foreign and security policy. Bipartisanship is the first. Foreign and security policy are seen as too important to be left to the minor players in the political scene – the word ‘irresponsible’ cropped up in several interviews.

Senior figures in the two main parties share the privileges and responsibilities of managing what some regard as parliament’s most sensitive committees; the Greens will never win a place on the ASIO committee. Consensus, rather than dissent and rigorous questioning, is the usual modus operandi. As a result, difficult questions about the rights and wrongs of certain foreign policy decisions are not always asked, or are deliberately not asked of the people in a position to know.

The second barrier is self-censorship. ‘Once brought into the tent, people recognise their responsibilities,’ is how one person interviewed for this study explained the phenomenon. National security has a powerful pull that leads its self-styled keepers, including those on committees (and sections of the media), away from principles of open and accountable government and into a murkier world which can encourage complicity and, sometimes, deliberate misrepresentation of the facts.

In the early stages of this study I believed that exposing some of the realities of the worlds of intelligence and national security would go some way to minimising the self-censorship exercised in these areas: with the realisation that more information can be safely known and disseminated might come a greater willingness to probe sensitive security matters.

However, with further examination it became clear that this was not going to be the case. That is because political as much as security concerns are behind this self-censorship. Despite claims that national security should remain ‘above politics,’ governments, it would seem, are prepared to make public sensitive information when it suits them, and hide it when it could lead to embarrassment. (Recall John Howard in 2001 citing an Office of National Assessments classified report that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard; Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN Security Council, which included pictures of alleged chemical weapons facilities.)

Governments can be selective with information in this way partly because of the complicity of the opposition party. As governments-in-waiting, oppositions are often tolerant because they expect they same latitude when in power.

This bipartisanship can be a strength of the committee system, such as when it facilitates wide-ranging inquiries that publicise and place on the public record matters of general interest. Two Senate inquiries in recent years, one on Australia’s relationship with APEC (2000) and the other on Japan (2001), are good examples. But on sensitive or politically charged foreign and national security policy matters, bipartisanship can be dangerous.

For many of those interviewed for this study, the report of the inquiry into Iraq’s alleged WMD highlights the need for a non-parliamentary inquiry, such as a judicial inquiry, into the use of intelligence by the Federal Government in Australia. It would investigate issues including the presentation to the public of intelligence material, access to intelligence material by parliamentary committees, and especially the nature of the relationship between intelligence agencies and policy departments. At a time when governments are increasingly willing to divulge selected intelligence material to justify their actions, such an inquiry would be valuable.

Intelligence is increasingly integrated with a range of offshore and local government functions, including counter-terrorism and border protection activities undertaken by the Customs Service and Immigration Department, and the maintenance and protection of critical infrastructure such as transport, communications and finance.

These mechanisms represent a new public policy alignment with security at its centre. At a minimum, a judicial inquiry could usefully map this new policy arrangement. It could also have ongoing impact, by arming those with the responsibility of keeping governments to account – including parliamentary committees, the press and other media – with the knowledge needed to critically appraise claims to secrecy made by governments and oppositions alike.

Unfortunately, bipartisan consensus on the sanctity of intelligence and national security means such an inquiry is unlikely to get off the ground.

Meanwhile, in the name of national security, Australians are about to be subject to a string of laws that restrict our freedom further than ever. With our oversight bodies as they are, we can’t be sure that these laws are either necessary or just. We should be worried.

Dr Burton’s study, Scrutiny or Secrecy? Committee Oversight of Foreign and National Security Policy in the Australian Parliament, was produced for the 2004 Australian Parliamentary Fellowship, a program of the Parliamentary Library in Canberra. It will be published by the Library in November 2005.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.