Alert and Alarmed

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The case of Dr Mohamed Haneef has most Australians worried, not just because of the way he was treated, but because serious questions have been raised about the competence of the Federal Government and the key agencies it controls to guard the security of the nation.

This concern was well articulated by Richard Ackland, the respected legal commentator, in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Bum advice from the Federal Police, crook submissions from the Director of Public Prosecutions, misplaced certitude from the Solicitor-General and confected antics from ministers of the Crown. The war on terrorism is in good hands.

When Haneef’s legal team released the transcript of the medico’s first police interrogation, we gained interesting insights into the thinking of the Australian authorities. Kevin Andrews, the Immigration Minister, rode the issue like a true politician, desperate to display the character he claimed Haneef lacked. Blind Freddie could tell that Andrews was quoting in a highly selective manner from a second, fuller transcript that we were told we couldn’t see for security reasons. Now, with that second document (a weighty 378 pages) also in the public domain, we can judge just how ‘selective’ Andrews was.

That’s the biggest worry: that the Government distorts the truth, or deliberately ignores it, in a quest to gain political capital and to avoid responsibility for ineptitude. National security, it is said, is one of the Howard Government’s two trump cards in the coming Federal election. (The economy is the other, but with interest rates trending upwards, that one’s not as convincing as it was.)

In reality, national security is not the Howard Government’s trump card. And a large number of people working in the intelligence community are really worried. To them, the Haneef debacle is a microcosm of what’s gone wrong, but broader issues drive their concern.

True, the Government’s spent a fortune on new staff, training and hi-tech gadgetry. But without good management this can be badly misdirected, if not squandered. The most limited resource, after all, is experienced human talent and that can’t be bought with money.

And yet, among the agencies that comprise today’s intelligence community, only Mick Keelty, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner, has hands-on experience in the area he administers.

The nation’s two prime intelligence agencies, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) are both run by bureaucrats with a Foreign Affairs background. Few countries where governments have a genuine interest in national security appoint people with no operational experience to run their overseas spy agency and their domestic security service.

Both ASIS and ASIO were established in the decade after World War II from a British blueprint. ASIS is simply the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6) with an ‘A’ added, while ASIO is copied from MI5.

And what are the British doing?

They’re sticking with the proven tradition of appointing professional career spies to these top jobs. In 2006, long-term spy Sir John Scarlett replaced Sir Richard Dearlove as the new chief of MI6, while in April 2007 Jonathan Evans took over as head of MI5. Evans had been Deputy Director-General of MI5 for two years and a career officer for 27 years.

It must be asked, who gains from heading in the direction we are? Howard avoids the question like the plague.

Something else that is worrying that community is the Government’s abject refusal to take responsibility for stuff-ups. Regime survival is taking precedence over cleansing the system and making sure nasty incidents don’t recur.

An example is the revelation in 2005 that the Customs Air Border Security Unit (CABSU) had twice reported on chronic insecurity and criminal activity at Sydney Airport. Yet nothing was done. The devastating reports never reached higher echelons in Canberra. They were leaked. The Federal Government was seriously embarrassed and commissioned Sir John Wheeler, a leading British aviation security expert, to look into the matter. That led to $212 million being spent on the most extensive overhaul of security at all major airports that Australia has seen.

But we hear no apology from Prime Minister Howard, nor any acceptance of responsibility for what was primarily a bureaucratic failure.

The Government’s energies instead went into hunting down Allan Kessing, a 59-year-old member of the CABSU who had worked on the reports. Although he didn’t actually leak them, he received a 9-month suspended prison sentence in June this year. What is beyond doubt is that all Australians are inordinately better off as a result of this information being put into the public arena in 2005.

But we still haven’t been told which bureaucrats are to be held accountable for the shortcomings exposed and how they’ll be disciplined. How can we be sure it won’t happen again? If the Government were genuine about national security it would be as interested in that as it was in dragging Kessing through the courts.

Another source of dissatisfaction in the intelligence community is the Government’s inability to understand how the system works and the limits to which it can be pushed.

Few Australians will have forgotten the Government’s belittling of Mick Keelty after the 2004 Madrid train bombings, when he quite reasonably observed in public that Australia’s involvement in Iraq could heighten the risk of such attacks here. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer outrageously likened him to an al-Qaeda propagandist and General Peter Cosgrove, then Chief of the Defence Force, appeared in full uniform alongside his Minister to refute what Keelty had said.

This hit the AFP hard.

Its officers are dreadfully overworked (one died on the job during the Haneef investigation) and are expected to take on new tasks at short notice from overseas peacekeeping missions to helping with the Government’s newfound interest in Aboriginal wellbeing in the Northern Territory.

Many remember a Weekend Australian Magazine cover story on Commissioner Keelty in May 2006, which elicited a raft of letters. One highlighted the fact that the Government was compromising the integrity of key officials. ‘When a senior public servant is made to publicly express regrets for telling the truth, we have come to a sorry pass,’  the correspondent wrote.

This left Keelty seriously wounded in the eyes of his staff. Many still feel he should have forced both the Prime Minister and Downer to apologise by threatening to resign. He didn’t and now he’s seen to lack the will to stop the Government from misusing his organisation.

Regrettably, some of the AFP’s best people are leaving. In another intelligence agency, staff are hampered by their and the Government’s loss of faith in its leader (which won’t be rectified before the election); and in another, there’s a worrying problem with alcoholism at the top.

Put simply, the Government no longer cares that in a democracy the bureaucratic machine is entrusted to it for the national good, not for its own. Whether the Opposition has any ideas on repairing the system is anybody’s guess.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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