The Spying Game


At its heart, the gathering of intelligence is all about truth. Throughout history the purpose of the craft has been clear: to get close to unknown realities, a detailed understanding of which is vital to the interests and security of one’s own nation. These unknown realities can take the form of the strategies and intentions of a foreign government whether hostile or friendly or the motives of a non-government group like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Trade, politics, technology and many other things come under this umbrella.

The trained staff of Australia’s intelligence agencies are expected to have the intellectual alacrity to discern, for example, why Indonesia’s generals formed, trained, armed and drugged militias in East Timor. They are expected to pick not only the rise of a movement like JI in Indonesia but also the sort of militant action that that group might engage in and the targets it might choose. It is no secret within the Anglo intelligence club that Australia stands guard duty on Indonesia, and we’re known to be pretty good at our job.

Even further afield, when it came to the type of ‘intelligence’ that Ahmed Chalabi and his fellow Iraqi exiles were concocting on WMD, Australian operatives and analysts were expected to distinguish truth from political flummery.

Intelligence uses clandestine means to go straight to the truth which is often the other side’s most closely guarded secret.

Our operatives have to recruit people with access to such secrets locals who are traitors, otherwise known as ‘agents’ to collect this material or information. It is the intelligence officer’s mission to get to the truth, no matter how unpalatable it might be to their government back home.

As life teaches us quickly, reality is what it is, before it’s ever what we want it to be. And a nation’s interests are best protected when reality is accepted as such. When a government chooses to reshape reality in its own image, a betrayal takes place that is much greater than that engaged in by the foreign agent in the field. And that is a betrayal not only of our intelligence operatives, but also of the national interest.

When governments indulge in duplicity whether it’s called politicisation, spin, or whatever much more is lost than honesty and integrity. The very raison d’être for the intelligence process is destroyed. But that hardly leaves the agencies sitting on the bureaucratic shelf neutered. Far from it: they’re actually ripe for the plucking. It’s only a hop, step and jump to their being used against the national interest and against the very electors our democratic system of government is supposed to serve.

To think this could not happen in Australia is naive.

Only two things stand in the way of such abuse. One is the decency of the overwhelming majority of men and women who work in our intelligence agencies. But the first line of defence is always management, which must especially in the fight against terrorism have a proven track record in the craft of intelligence. The agency chiefs must have the experience that allows them to understand the consequences of politicisation, and the strain when an agency is forced to digest huge budgetary increases and rapid inductions of new and untrained staff.

Intelligence agencies are delicate flowers: they’re orchids, rather than common geraniums that can make a home on any rubbish tip.

Just as you can’t have democracy without accountability, you can’t have safe and reliable intelligence without integrity at the top. And the best way to maximise the chances of that are to go for professionals who can do the job properly and know the risks involved. It’s not the work of any old bureaucrat rather, it’s very much about horses for courses. How would you like to be wheeled in for brain surgery, only to be assured by the theatre nurse that you were going to be operated on by one of the hospital’s top administrators? You’d be off the table and out of there fast!

The salutary lesson in all this is that intelligence and politics don’t mix, and shouldn’t be expected to. This is especially so with the end of the Cold War seeing off the Communist bogeyman and with terrorism now filling the vacuum. Intelligence is a unique part of the bureaucratic system. It’s a weathervane for truth and accountability or it should be. It has to be locked into the national interest firmly, while receiving its targeting and priorities from key decision- and policy-makers in other departments and agencies.

Intelligence is not only vital at the Federal level, where government is charged with protecting and enhancing the national interest, but also in the Federal Government’s relations with the States. In fact, in the fight against terrorism, the front line is largely at the State level, where regional police forces know their beat better than Canberra and need careful coordination and support from the capital, rather than a second tier of well-heeled arrogance and inexperience.

Turf battles between these two layers are anathema and are best avoided by having experienced management in the agencies in Canberra. Intelligence chiefs must have the integrity to stand up to politicians with doubtful agendas and must be known to be able to do so. If they earn that respect from State authorities, you can be pretty sure they’ll also have it from our allies overseas.

This is the first  in a series of articles examining the position and performance of Australia’s intelligence agencies.

Australia’s Intelligence Agencies
¢  Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS): our overseas human intelligence gatherer, equivalent to MI6, CIA, etc.

¢  Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO): our domestic counter-intelligence body. Charged with stopping foreign operatives from penetrating our system, catching Australian traitors and other undesirables like terrorists.

¢  Australian Federal Police (AFP): covers Commonwealth police matters, as against State matters, but works cooperatively with State forces, especially in the fight against terrorism.

¢  Office of National Assessments (ONA): a Commonwealth body drawing together and analysing all intelligence gathered by other agencies, as well as from DFAT, etc.

¢  Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO): analyses all intelligence relevant to the nation’s defence capability within an international setting.

¢  Defence Signals Directorate (DSD): Australia’s electronic eavesdropping body.

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.