Cover is crucial to agencies such as ASIO and the Australian Federal Police. It allows an operative to hide their identity to get close to a target, and to meet safely with agents or informants.
Cover is also vital for ASIS operatives overseas, whether it be diplomatic that is, working out of an embassy, which is the most common form business, academic or some other guise. If your cover is blown, which can occur as a result of loose talk or disloyalty on the part of one’s bureaucratic colleagues, an operative can be declared persona non grata by the host government and kicked out, with or without fanfare.
Although the British have managed to rescue eight of their people from the legal hellhole of GuantÃ¡namo Bay, there’s a salutary warning in the David Hicks case for all Australian operatives overseas: what price your Government’s loyalty?
The best operational environment for intelligence agencies is one of relative community calm and trust. The community’s willingness to help is vital, but a society traumatised or hyperventilating as a result of political scare-mongering produces only muddy waters to fish in. Most of the rhetoric out of Canberra over the need for the latest anti-terrorist legislation has been counter-productive .
An irrational and childish display came in September when the Federal Government expelled the American peace activist Scott Parkin under escort something for which Parkin himself had to pay. The Government said its action was based on an ASIO assessment that Parkin posed a threat to the nation’s security. This sort of high level farce leaves many in the agencies deeply unsettled. ‘Why can’t the Australian people be told of the nature of the threat?’ some ask, while others suggest, ‘This is plain stupid and makes us look like the Keystone Cops.’ ASIO staff deserve better than that from their political masters. So does the community, whose trust in the agencies is of prime importance in any democracy.
The agencies don’t ‘belong’ to the Government. They serve the country’s interests, under the direction of the political party entrusted with the governance of the nation.
The fight against terrorism, especially since the first Bali Bombings in 2002, has changed the traditional role of Australia’s intelligence agencies. In the past, ASIS had the overseas arena particularly its traditional Asian operational bailiwick pretty much to itself, handling virtually all liaison with local intelligence agencies, even police. ASIO was represented only in major immigration countries.
Now, more agencies want officers on the ground in more places. Excellent forensic work by the AFP after the Bali Bombings, for example, gave that organisation a lasting presence in Indonesia and ASIO is hot on its tail.
This has led to unhealthy competition and ill will between the three agencies, which has not yet been satisfactorily resolved. The relationship between the AFP and ASIO, which has operational significance, is watched closely by any who need to work with them in the fight against terrorism. And all is not good. It is not merely a turf war, but rather a matter of professional respect.
With the focus on terrorism, the standing charters of the agencies have been obscured. ASIO, for example, is meant to be finding foreign spies operating on our soil and especially uncovering the homegrown Australian traitors who work for them and provide them with our most closely guarded secrets. What the Americans share with us is also highly sought after.
Yet ASIO’s track record on treachery is abysmal. As one intelligence wag has observed:
Australia has the same incidence as any developed nation of murder, rape, arson and gluttony, yet we don’t have traitors? Wow, that beats the Immaculate Conception. If you can’t catch ’em, you don’t have ’em!
With China and other nations breathing down our neck, we need to get real on this front, and fast. It’s not only political secrets that others want from us. Industrial, technological and commercial espionage is rife in this country and goes almost unmonitored.
That’s where politicisation comes in again.
Imagine hypothetically that you’re an Australian intelligence operative overseas and you come across evidence of just who’s working for whom back in Canberra, or who’s mixed up in skulduggery. It might involve an Australian with access to top secret material, a mandarin taking a cut on some international trade or defence deal, or a minister known to be protecting paedophiles. You can guess for yourself what chance you’d have in the current climate of seeing any of those picked up and taken through to prosecution and conviction in our court system.
When is the last time you can recall someone of Robert Hanssen’s venality being caught and imprisoned in Australia? He spent 27 years working for the FBI and more than half of it selling secrets to the Russians, some of it sending US intelligence operatives to their deaths.
Using the fight against terrorism to force-feed the agencies with money and new recruits won’t do much good in these traditional areas. For those with something to hide, the threat of terrorism as real as it is can be a great diversion.
This is the second instalment in a three-part series on Australia’s intelligence agencies. For a full list of those agencies see Warren Reed’s first article (link here)
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