April 29th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Taking stock of the wheat scandal

EDITORIAL: Watering Australia: a national priority

BORDER PROTECTION: Why Australia needs naval, air force bases in Torres Strait

NATIONAL SECURITY: Lives endangered by latest intelligence leaks

ENVIRONMENTALISM: How the Great Barrier Reef is mismanaged

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Labor misses the bus / All is vanity / Kosovo's mafia / When the bills come in / Open season on Christianity

REGIONAL ECONOMIC POLICY: The end of international economic cooperation? (Part 2)

PERU: Latest Latin American country to turn left

SCHOOLS: The choice so few parents can afford

MEDIA: ABC's Easter assault on Christianity

THE WEST AND ISLAM: No alternative but to defend our values

Social cost of unfettered capitalism (letter)

Robert Manne's media critique defended (letter)

Why have a Department of Foreign Affairs? (letter)

CINEMA: Caped crusader for the know-nothing left: V for Vendetta

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Lives endangered by latest intelligence leaks

by John Miller

News Weekly, April 29, 2006
Innocent Australian lives have been put at grave risk in the last few weeks following the latest leaks of highly confidential counter-terrorist information to the media. A former senior intelligence officer John Miller asks whether Australia will have to suffer a major terrorist attack before proper action is taken.

On April 7, 2006, at a meeting with Australia's emergency services ministers, the Attorney-General Philip Ruddock was interviewed on ABC News Radio about the disaster report recommendations following Cyclone Larry.

In the course of the interview, he was asked about contingencies in the event of a terrorist attack.

His response was measured and entirely appropriate for the moment. However, he would do well to ponder the events of the previous week, which saw the murder of an IRA informant, despite a supposed ceasefire in Northern Ireland, and the ongoing, often farcical, trial of al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, an associate of Osama bin Laden, who claimed that he had been assigned to fly a fifth jet airliner into the White House, as part of the September 11 terrorist attack on America.


Mercifully, those events are far removed from Australia, but has our population become inured to the threat of terrorism? This is a serious question as the grapevine of old sweats from the security and intelligence services reports that the Commonwealth Government and the self-styled Australian intelligence community are apparently quite relaxed and comfortable, having made a few more arrests of persons under the laws relating to terrorism.

Regular readers of News Weekly will recall how attention was recently drawn to a lamentable lapse in security during last November's pre-emptive raids by police and intelligence personnel in Sydney and Melbourne, which resulted in the identification of sources of information used for the procurement of warrants. (News Weekly, March 4, 2006). Subsequently, the Attorney-General Philip Ruddock rightly expressed consternation about the matter (News Weekly, March 18, 2006).

However, it appears that there has been yet another leak in security, resulting in the identification of two ASIO officers who were interviewing Sydney-based cleric, Sheikh Mansour Leghaei, suspected by ASIO of having links with Iranian intelligence services.

This latest episode was revealed on the Channel 9 Sunday program (April 2, 2006), in a cover story rather insultingly entitled "The Spying Game" (in the manner of Philip Knightley).

Sunday's compere Jana Wendt introduced the segment with the following words: "... Sunday's reporter Sarah Ferguson has been investigating how ASIO works, and what she's found may surprise you - a Sydney man with links to Osama bin Laden, an Islamic cleric suspected of spying for Iran, and fears of an imminent terrorist attack close to Australia. Her report is our cover story."

The report itself appeared to focus on Sheikh Leghaei, who is currently appealing a deportation order, but was somewhat convoluted in that it also ran a parallel story on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and its current capabilities.

The background was set by a review of ASIO's history through the eyes of two former communists, David McKnight, a senior lecturer at the University of Technology, Sydney, and Mark Aarons (son of a former national secretary of the Communist Party of Australia, Laurie Aarons). Both McKnight and Aarons could scarcely be described as anything other than hostile to ASIO in their written works, although McKnight's book, Australia's Spies and Their Secrets (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994), contains less bias than might be expected.

For his part, Mark Aarons has been a regular commentator on ABC radio and television, and made a reputation for himself exposing alleged Croatian Ustasha members in the 1970s and pursuing former Nazi war criminals allegedly living in Australia.

The capabilities of ASIO were covered by clips of interviews with Attorney-General Ruddock and other luminaries such as Alan Wrigley, former Director-General of ASIO; Denis Richardson, immediate past Director-General of ASIO; and Paul O'Sullivan, the current Director-General of ASIO.

The trio of former and serving Directors-General of ASIO revealed very little. Alan Wrigley - who was not the most popular of Directors-General - contented himself with expert comments on the case of an Armenian bomber, dating from 1987, and made a very valid point that some acts of terrorism can be committed by employing a modus operandi that could be summarised as "fly in, make the hit, then fly out".

Naturally enough, he omitted (or at least was not asked) to make any comment on the disastrous move to Canberra of ASIO headquarters in 1987 and the haemorrhaging of expertise caused by the loss of experienced staff, and a somewhat autocratic management style that basically brooked no opposition.

Denis Richardson reflected on the effects of the post-Cold War "peace dividend" on the ASIO, when staff member numbers fell from more than 600 to around 450.

He was in fact condemned by his own words. He said: "I believe there was the failure of ASIO, the failure of the Australian intelligence community (sic), the failure of regional intelligence communities and others to identify the transition of JI (Jemaah Islamiah) into a terrorist organisation before late 2001. We are paid to identify things like that and we didn't do it."

He went on to say that "ASIO in particular, but to a lesser extent the other agencies, weren't focused on terrorism more generally. Therefore Jemaah Islamiah got under the radar. Secondly, they didn't have the resources to look at that because they were being tasked to do other things. So they were looking the other way when it happened."

It would be interesting to know where they were looking, but in essence Richardson was writing his own epitaph as Director-General of ASIO. To use an Americanism, these failures happened on his watch, and, ironically, his reward was to be appointed Ambassador to the United States.

Paul O'Sullivan, the current Director-General of ASIO, played little part in the proceedings except to say that, by 2010, ASIO "will look and feel quite different to the way it now appears." He was described by reporter Sarah Ferguson as "the man chosen to guide the agency through the most rapid expansion in its history".

It can only be assumed that there was bipartisan agreement on the appointment of Mr O'Sullivan. But it goes without saying that ASIO officers would scarcely feel assured by the appointment of a man who, while serving in Egypt with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in the mid-1990s, reportedly disclosed the identity of an Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) officer to local authorities. Blowing this officer's cover not only ruined the officer's career; it also put the officer at great risk of losing his life. (Sydney Morning Herald, July 17, 2005).

This lamentable act was aired last year on Channel 9 by Laurie Oakes - ironically, on the Sunday program (July 17, 2005). To further complicate the matter, it appears that O'Sullivan played a role in the AWB affair, currently subject of the Cole Royal Commission, which will hand down its report soon.

The question has to be asked - is Paul O'Sullivan the right person to lead ASIO under the circumstances?

The views of these gentlemen were the subject of comments from Dr Alan Dupont of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney (something of a sheltered workshop for retired DFAT officers); Neil Fergus, a former ASIO officer who now heads the private think-tank Intelligent Risks; Ian Carnell, the current Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security; Dr Carl Ungerer, a former analyst with the Office of National Assessments; and, lastly, Martin Indyk, the Australian-born former US Ambassador to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs under the Clinton Administration. He is currently listed as a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute.

Alan Dupont managed to underestimate entirely the number of staff needed for effective surveillance of any target, let alone in the terrorist area. Regrettably, and probably because of time constraints and the nature of the program, the contribution by this group could scarcely be described as valuable, although Dr Indyk made some pertinent points about the Iranian intelligence services and their possible links with community groups in Australia.

By far the most serious strand of this story concerns Sydney-based cleric, Sheikh Mansour Leghaei, who was interviewed in a minor cameo of Islamic doublespeak.

In an attempt at drama, the reporter Sarah Ferguson stated:

"It is 24 hours after the bombing of the Golden Shrine in Iraq. In Sydney's west, 13,000 km away, the Shi'ite community have gathered to grieve for the destruction of one of their holiest places. Nothing is greater than God.

"They are led by Sheikh Mansour Leghaei, an Iranian cleric who studied under the Grand Ayatollahs. There is no doubting his influence over these men and over the Shi'a community.

"He professes to be a moderate, but for more than a decade ASIO has watched him. Secretly at first, then openly. They traced his connections, examined his finances, rifled through his luggage and interrogated him repeatedly. They've concluded he's a threat to Australia's national security.

SARAH FERGUSON: Sheikh Leghaei, are you an Iranian spy?

SHEIKH LEGHAEI: I'm not a spy. I've never been a spy.

FERGUSON: Why does ASIO think you are?

LEGHAEI: In my conviction, they are 100 per cent incorrect.

FERGUSON: Much of ASIO's work involves penetrating ethnic communities. Since September 11, the clear focus is on Islamic communities. The operation targeting Mansour Leghaei demonstrates both the complexity of that task and the sensitivities."

The reporter's last point was perceptive.

However, what followed was extremely disturbing - a re-enactment of the ASIO interview with the Sheikh was broadcast, in part, with actors substituting for the ASIO officers. Ferguson stated: "Sunday has obtained the audio of the interview. Very unusually, the transcript shows the surnames of the ASIO officers, which we will not reveal."

How very decent and public-spirited of Channel 9 and the Sunday program! This matter raises the question of security procedures yet again. Within what is euphemistically termed the Australian intelligence community, there obviously exists a person or group who believes that it is in the public interest to air material of this type. Such behaviour is totally unacceptable: more now than ever before. It places the lives of Australian citizens - in this case ASIO officers - at risk, with a concomitant possibility of murder.

To complicate the matter further, the revelation that a Channel 9 reporter had a copy of a taped interview which identified the two ASIO officers is in itself another invitation to violence. Hostile intelligence services now know that Ms Ferguson has the tape and knows the identity of the intelligence officers. It is logical to conclude that all three could be targeted by hostile elements.

But it does not end there: presumably the ASIO officers and Ms Ferguson have families. All need to be protected. That begs the question of scarce resources being diverted to that task through irresponsible TV tabloid journalism.

As yet, Australia has not felt the impact of terrorism on domestic soil. In retrospect, the attacks in Bali can be seen as a sign of things to come. It is not a game!

In the best of all worlds, the two ASIO officers concerned in the Leghaei interview would be given new identities and relocated. It is highly unlikely that such a course of action will be taken here and now.

Should any harm come to those officers or their families, or to Ms Ferguson and her Channel 9 colleagues who are privy to the officers' identities, their blood will be on the hands of whoever leaked the information and passed on the interview tape.

This is a despicable and shameful episode. If the Federal Government is serious, counterintelligence "plumbers" should be called and the culprit prosecuted with the full rigour of the law.

Death threat

Regrettably, tales of incompetence, deliberate leaking and astute journalism do not end with the Sunday program. In a brief report that would otherwise be classified as ludicrous, the media on April 10 announced that an Australian Federal Police officer had been suspended, pending further investigation, for allegedly consulting a clairvoyant in an investigation concerning a death threat made against Prime Minister John Howard.

This is a grave matter. One can only conjecture about the fact that the AFP confirmed the report and, secondly, one can anticipate further leaking on the subject.

Another serious leak was evident when the Melbourne Age (April 11, 2006) proudly proclaimed that the Victoria Police had become Australia's first force to use an undercover officer to infiltrate a radical Islamic group.

The infiltration was part of an ongoing national counter-terrorism investigation, Operation Pendennis, which resulted in the anti-terrorist raids of last November and the later charging of 13 suspects with terrorism-related offences.

Really? If that is the case, it is a reflection on the capacity of ASIO and the AFP and a commendation for the Victoria Police, which did not offer any comment on the report.

However, while the newspaper report was pursuing the issue of the use of infiltration as a technique and its legal ramifications - a rightful concern - someone has missed the point.

Some bright spark has leaked this information, no doubt "in the public interest". According to The Age, those charged during the raids were aware that they had been infiltrated, and the leader of their group aware of the identity of the source of information. In effect, that knowledge could also be a death sentence.

No-one wants to see the media muzzled and free speech crushed, but just where does the responsibility for the lives of those who assist the police and security lie? With a reporter, a sub-editor, an editor, the authorities or politicians? As noted at the outset, counter-terrorism is not a game.

What tragedy has to occur before government and the media develop a policy on what should be revealed and when?

  • John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.

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