February 4th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Bushfires: the lessons of history

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Unanswered questions about oil-for-food scam

NATIONAL SECURITY: How prepared are our intelligence agencies?

INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Australia left holding trade's $1-billion-dollar baby

TAXATION: Government's dilemma - "future fund" or tax cuts?

PRIMARY PRODUCTION: SA egg producers at breaking point

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Some like it hot / Thatcher the chemist / Turks in denial

AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY: Whatever has gone wrong with sex?

SCHOOLS: Subversive agenda of multicultural education

EMBRYO EXPERIMENTATION: Cells, lies and Korea-gate

HEALTH: 4,000 submissions to RU-486 abortion pill inquiry

Civilisation's fragile fabric (letter)

So, who's to blame? (letter)

Packer 'dumbed down' Australia (letter)

CINEMA: Good Night, and Good Luck: Hollywood spin on the McCarthy era

BOOKS: The Pope Benedict Code, by Joanna Bogle

BOOKS: What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman

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How prepared are our intelligence agencies?

by John Miller

News Weekly, February 4, 2006
The Commonwealth's anti-terrorist legislation will fail unless our intelligence agencies are thoroughly overhauled, according to John Miller, a former senior intelligence officer.

Despite the forebodings of the Western intelligence community, it is fortunate that the large gatherings around the world welcoming in the New Year passed without incident, except for France, which continues to experience mob violence seemingly unrelated to organised terrorism.

One can only recoil in horror at the thought of what a human bomber could have achieved in Times Square in New York, Trafalgar Square in London, the Brandenburg Gate in Germany, or, to bring things closer to home, the celebrations in Sydney or Melbourne.

A number of intelligence officers have conjectured that there are any number of reasons why no attacks took place and, while everyone is grateful, that does not mean we should be any less alert about favourable operational conditions for terrorism.


In a broad sweep of international press reports, some indicate that al-Qaeda has run out of steam and leaders, a notion juxtaposed by claims that training is continuing in large numbers in Iraq. While the elections in that unhappy country give grounds for cautious optimism, it remains to be seen what happens when American and allied forces are withdrawn.

A second reason given is that the outrage caused by terrorist attacks on a worldwide scale would provoke a backlash unacceptable to terrorist leaders. Sceptics, however, might suggest that terrorist leaders would see such a backlash as ultimately strengthening their hand, as retaliation would fall on so-called innocent Muslims, thus increasing the level of support for their cause.

It could well be that the wildcard player in global terrorism is Iran, whose hardline new President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently vowed to "wipe Israel off the map" and to "destroy America".

The Tehran Government has been negotiating with the Russians to have uranium enriched on their soil, for use in Iranian reactors which Teheran insists is solely for power generation and not for producing nuclear weapons.

Cynics would argue with some conviction that the by-product of Iranian reactors could be used to make a conventional "dirty" bomb - high explosive with nuclear particulate matter dispersed over a wide area - a much more lethal proposition than some clean atomic weapons, and certainly easier to manufacture and use.

In Australia, the Government is probably congratulating itself that the pre-Christmas crackdown on terrorist suspects and organisations could be counted as a pre-emptive strike.

The enraged civil rights lobby and others opposed to the extension of anti-terrorist powers have already pointed to the fact that one judge has apparently described evidence against two suspects as "thin".

A number of respected former federal police and intelligence officers have already expressed the fear that the big raids were in fact more of a "fishing expedition", a phenomenon well-known abroad but still practised in Australia on various occasions.

The danger of such operations is they may well scoop up hundreds of kilograms of documents, many hours of intercepted telephone conversations or e-mails and a few small fry. As yet, it has not been proven that any real terrorist suspects have been apprehended.

It is true that a certain radical cleric and his colleague discussed assassination of the Prime Minister. While this is a worrying development, it has not been suggested that anyone was assigned to go ahead with such an operation and, unfortunately, experience shows that the initiative invariably lies with the assassin or the terrorist.

Full judgment on the efficacy of the raids remains to be tested in court. In the public mind, the Government has been seen "to do something" as opposed to being apparently supine.

Civil liberties groups

However, the greatest problem would be the demolition of the Government's cases in court, which will be no doubt surrounded by the circling vultures of civil liberties groups, migrant support groups and those who feed on government mistakes. The consequence could be a loss of credibility and doubts cast over future operations.

The worrying trend of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) colonising intelligence agencies continues.

The principal worry is that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in particular has had considerable trouble in attracting and retaining high-quality staff since the days of its move to Canberra.

Since then, every director-general has come from the ranks of DFAT and brought their own bland management style with them. More worryingly, DFAT desk officers, while usually competent report writers and researchers, have a certain mindset which usually hinges on government policy.

The East European division was supine in the face of so-called Soviet diplomacy in Australia in the 1970s, and it took some time for the Fraser Government to harden the foreign policy line following the invasion of Afghanistan.

There were the DFA assessments that Soviet expansionism in that direction was logical, and at least one paper was produced supporting the establishment of a separate state in Baluchistan, which could have given yet another valuable warm water port to the Soviet Navy.

By and large, the intelligence community regarded DFA position papers as soundly written but reflecting the views of the government of the day. In addition, some sections of DFA acted as a law unto themselves and pushed an unapologetically "anti-anti-communist" line.

Rightly or wrongly, the working definition of an Australian diplomat was someone sent abroad to betray his country.

One veteran intelligence officer recalls, in the late 1970s, hearing with stunned disbelief an Australian trade official indiscreetly revealing his government's bargaining position on a trade deal to a visiting East European trade delegation over lunch. The official concerned in passing the information was impossibly young and extremely naïve about whom he was dealing with, considering there were no fewer than three intelligence officers in a seven-man delegation.

However, there is no reason to believe that DFAT analysts employed in the intelligence community and in full possession of all the facts of a terrorist operation could not produce a first-class report in a timely fashion.

Political spin

The amount of spin put on these reports is something that should be seriously considered in terms of an audit of papers and careful checking of sourcing and reliability of information before forwarding reports to government.

Many people make a rather asinine assumption that data and information comprise intelligence: they do not. It is only after the raw data and information are matched to existing information of proven reliability and the appropriate conclusions drawn - and if necessary argued against - that this material become genuine intelligence. This is the basic reason why intelligence work is a discipline of its own.

The welcome increase in the number of intelligence officers redresses the disastrous paring back of the intelligence community's numbers as part of the peace dividend, following the end of the Cold War.

Barely a week passes without advertisements in the national press for well-paid positions in the hierarchy. What is not known is whether ASIO is successfully recruiting the types of agents needed in all facets of its work.

These people are usually a breed apart from analysts and desk officers. However, for 20 years or more, the organisation has insisted on generalist officers, when quite clearly the nature of the work demands specialists, and specialists of a high order.

The insistence on generalists has been disastrous for ASIO. New recruits are rotated through various positions without taking into account that sometimes they are moved before they have even mastered the basics of the task at hand.

It was noticeable in the late 1980s and early '90s that a new phenomenon had manifested itself throughout ASIO. Desk officers would work in one position and then apply for a transfer before their sins and mistakes caught up with them. Unless this policy has been reversed and desk officers/analysts are allowed to become specialists, ASIO's efficiency will be impaired because there is no substitute for experience, education and hands-on work.

It is probably an obvious point, but the first time a bomb actually explodes in this country killing people, the loudest sound will be the shrill chorus of government ministers, public servants and security personnel, all hastily justifying their lack of preparedness and seeking to blame someone else for the fiasco.

Passing the blame

Sadly, as the Commonwealth's anti-terrorist legislation now stands, the buck is likely to stop initially with ill-prepared state police forces - always a useful tactic to play in the pass-the-parcel of blame.

ASIO's new director-general, Paul O'Sullivan, is a former intelligence adviser to the Prime Minister and a remarkable choice by any standard for his current position. It is also a disturbing development for the intelligence community.

Mr O'Sullivan served in DFAT's Peace and Disarmament section - a place where rose-tinted glasses were mandatory during long periods of the Cold War.

Despite his apparently sterling service including two stints in Washington and as Australian ambassador to Germany, there remains the slight problem of his posting in the mid-1990s to Egypt where he and Australia's then ambassador to Cairo, Ken Rodgers, allegedly betrayed the identity of an Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) officer to local authorities, putting that officer at great risk of losing his life. As a consequence of his cover having been blown, the officer's career was ruined. (Sydney Morning Herald, July 17, 2005).

It was with a degree of slight amusement that some read an account of Mr O'Sullivan, on his appointment as ASIO director-general, warning 200 new intelligence officers not to allow politics to cover their intelligence-gathering and to avoid overstepping their new counter-terrorism powers. (The Australian, December 26, 2005).

The Australian, in an approving editorial the following day, stated that much of the work of intelligence agencies consists of "providing information and analysis that does not suit ministers' political prejudices or political purposes" and that Mr O'Sullivan's public statement "appropriately emphasised the need for intelligence agencies to question each other's arguments".

The editorial concluded that this was "a call for rigour in how information is interpreted and how advice is provided. Or, as traditional public servants would put it, the job of an intelligence officer is to provide frank and fearless advice." (The Australian, December 27, 2005).

More myth than reality

Such rhetoric has been more myth than reality for far too long in the Australian Government. DFAT has long been the trendsetter in telling government what it wants to hear; and those who argued to the contrary have soon found themselves in exile, or compelled on conscience grounds to resign.

One would like to believe that the forces engaged in homeland security, for want of a better term, are provided with the appropriate resources, such as staff, technical equipment and money, and that they are competently led.

The United States and United Kingdom have been tested and found wanting. Let us hope that lessons have been learned, and that when Australia's turn comes - as inevitably it must - then we are well prepared.

As for those who proselytise on behalf of Islamic terrorism, irrespective of their migration status, they should be expelled to a country more suited to their beliefs rather than be allowed to stoke festering hate in our community.

  • John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer

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