Despite a number of inquiries into Australia’s intelligence agencies over the years, their strong point has not been accountability. Big heads rarely roll. A dexterous move sideways is about as severe as it gets, if not a brief pummelling with a feather.
The survival instinct of politicians is at its most acute during intelligence scandals, because they know the public is aware of how directly such scandals compromise the national interest. Hence a government’s first line of defence (especially in Australia, where it’s become an art form) is to say, ‘No comment. We don’t discuss security and intelligence matters.’
True, there are occasions when this is a legitimate defence, but they are few and far between. Almost always it’s the coward’s way out.
In November 2004, Channel Nine’s Sunday Program ran a feature on Indonesia in which Jakarta’s then retiring intelligence supremo, Hendropryono, boasted of having penetrated the Australian system defence, political and intelligence. His words were uttered with swagger.
The Australian Government stuck to its ‘no comment’ line and got away with it. There was no cry from the community to address the accusations, nor were there questions in Parliament. Unbelievable in any other democracy, but not here.
This begs the question: does the Opposition have some secret agreement with the Government to stay quiet on such matters to mutual political advantage?
In the same month, ABC-TV’s Four Corners ran a program featuring a former Secretary of our Attorney-General’s Department revealing how American intelligence had cut off the flow of secret material to Canberra until we ‘put our house in order.’
The Americans were seriously concerned by indications that ASIO had been penetrated by Soviet intelligence, especially when former KGB major-general, Oleg Kalugin, published a biography in the US saying that his old spy organisation had long been receiving a flow of top intelligence from inside the Australian system. The Americans demanded Canberra clean up its act and root out the Australian traitors involved. Washington’s greatest fear was, as always, that sensitive US intelligence exchanged with allies like Australia was leaking.
Again, there was no comment from the Australian Government on the report.
This can be demoralising for good investigative journalists in the Australian media. It is also dispiriting for those in our intelligence agencies who want to see things cleaned up.
Their main recourse is to the office of the Inspector-General for Intelligence and Security (IGIS), a grossly understaffed body that reports annually to Parliament. IGIS has been up and running for more than 15 years but hasn’t achieved much in terms of cleansing the system. It is commonly referred to in Canberra as the city’s most cleverly designed cul-de-sac, or, the Bermuda Triangle.
Six years after the deliberate severance by the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) of the intelligence link to Australia’s INTERFET forces in East Timor, IGIS still can’t tell us who was responsible for this act. By any measure, the cut put at risk the lives of 5000 Australians in an operational zone.
How will we ever uncover terrorist cells in our midst if we can’t settle an issue of this simple nature?
The recent Senate Inquiry into Military Justice investigated cases such as this. Many Australians will remember the television image of General Cosgrove, who had commanded the INTERFET force, giving evidence to the Inquiry in his capacity as Chief of the Defence Force.
He said he thought the military justice system was working well and didn’t need fixing. After a long and gruelling investigation, which brought some members of the Inquiry to tears, the Senate’s report stated that the military justice system was shambolic.
Despite much good work, the Inquiry apportioned no blame. No one took responsibility and things pretty quickly returned to ‘normal.’ The link between intelligence and defence is vital to the protection of the nation’s interests, and we all deserve much better than this. Our allies look on in amazement, regardless of what they say in public.
The truth is that throughout Australia’s intelligence system, politicisation a subtle process that seeps down from the top is rampant, with cronyism hot on its tail. Any officer or operative who points this out, or suggests a different line of thought to government policy, is likely to attract unhealthy attention. This is anathema in an intelligence community, where intellectual vibrancy, foresight and analytical and deductive skills are crucial.
Buck the system through doing your job and you will find yourself ruthlessly blow-torched, especially if you’re pointing out serious wrongdoing. There’s nothing that the management of an intelligence agency pursues with more vigour and malevolence than a cover-up.
This is what happened to Mervyn Jenkins, DIO’s representative in our Washington Embassy in 1999. Jenkins, an experienced, retired Army officer and noted expert in electronic warfare, was obliged by the Australian Government to hand over to American intelligence agencies reports on Indonesia that did not accurately reflect what we knew about Jakarta’s training, arming and drugging of militia groups in East Timor.
To lie on anything within the Anglo intelligence club is a cardinal sin. Jenkins was faced with the dilemma of choosing between the importance to our national interest of the ongoing relationship of trust we share with the Americans, and the agenda of the Government of the day. He opted for the truth and was mercilessly burnt for it, even being accused of passing Australian secrets to a foreign power, and threatened with prosecution.
Jenkins committed suicide in Washington on his 48th birthday. No one to date has taken responsibility for the events that led up to that tragedy, although there are those in Canberra who make no secret of their pride in being able to push someone that far.
Australian soldiers who died in action defending this country would turn in their graves over these sorts of things not just the fact that they regularly occur, but that Australians as a whole, especially via their elected representatives, don’t seem to care.
A democracy’s intelligence system is a barometer for the nation’s sense of purpose, decency and intellectual alacrity. For a government to fail to act on the obvious signs of decay is to betray all that we stand for.
But don’t let that puncture the balloon of rhetoric streaming out of Canberra on the war against terror.
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