COVER STORY: NATIONAL SECURITY: The sum of all our fears - betrayal
by John Miller
News Weekly, March 4, 2006
During last November's police raids on terrorist suspects, the identities of people who had confidentially provided information to the authorities were leaked to the media.
This betrayal will make people think twice before volunteering their services, warns John Miller, a former senior intelligence officer. He says that the cause of countering terror in Australia has now been dealt a severe, if not mortal, blow.
How prepared are Australia's intelligence agencies? That was the question we posed in last month's News Weekly (February 4, 2006).
It was noted in passing that last November's crackdown on terrorist suspects and organisations had been met in some quarters by judicial queries about the strength of the government's case for arrest and detention of 17 suspects.
The forebodings expressed in that article have unfortunately rebounded on our intelligence agencies in a way that might have been anticipated, given the nature of the raids and attendant publicity.
Being proven correct on this issue is not a matter for smug self-satisfaction: it is a tragedy.
It will be galling for the great number of people involved in this matter that ABC-TV's Media Watch should have exposed the way the identities of sources of confidential information were treated.
Monica Attard's incisive exposé on the night of February 13, 2006 (available as a transcript at: www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s1568705.htm) concentrated on the facts and presented damning evidence. It was a complete validation of the ABC's charter.
The Government, the Opposition and the counter-terrorism organisations cannot just sit out this story; possibly irreparable damage has now been done.
The substance of the Media Watch program is easy to summarise. It is clear that the general public has obviously responded to the much-derided fridge magnet hotline 1800 123 400. A number of them have even provided useful information.
Evidently, from that information, warrants were sought to conduct raids on various premises, which took place in the first week of November in Sydney and Melbourne. However, as Media Watch has conclusively shown, journalists were able to identify who had provided information on the warrants used by the forces conducting the raids.
Here, as in America, a warrant has to be presented to a householder when a search under warrant is conducted. For a warrant to contain details of those who provided the basic information is astounding.
There is very obviously a flaw in the Australian Federal Police (AFP) procedure if those details appear on the warrant shown to householders and individuals. It appears that, first, The Australian newspaper, then later Network Ten television, were able to obtain the names of the sources.
Media Watch reported that a person named "Jeff" (a pseudonym) had contacted a popular Sydney radio station 2UE talkback host John Laws. "Jeff" complained, on air, that The Australian "said they had a copy of the search warrants; and, on the search warrants, it stated the people's name they were searching, what goods they were looking for and the name of the people (sic.) who'd given the information had rung the hotline".
"Jeff" said that he had complained to the police, but that the AFP had assured him that the newspaper would not print any details. However, it appears that The Australian's reporter had verbally intimidated "Jeff", and the latter was genuinely and not unreasonably concerned about his personal safety. He had every right to be!
Despite the fact that he was not named, photographs printed in the newspaper and news reports on Channel 10 effectively provided a way of determining the sources of information.
Predictably, The Australian denied that the "witness" was ever threatened. The paper's then editor Chris Mitchell told ABC's Media Watch that reporter Simon Kearney had told "Jeff" that "his identity was already in the public domain - his company having been listed on warrants - that he might as well tell his side of the story as there was no doubt more reporters would be knocking on his door".
"Jeff" conveyed his concern to the AFP and said they had contacted him later and said the newspaper would not print his identity, which it didn't.
However, "Jeff" also said: "A police stuff-up identifying the businesses in warrants meant it was open to all reporters to go and get 'em. Channel Ten showed a store where chemicals - allegedly for bomb-making - were bought. Then they named and interviewed the reluctant proprietor who - like "Jeff" - had been promised anonymity by the police."
Media Watch acted entirely appropriately and responsibly by blurring Channel 10's footage of this event. While intelligence officers generally speaking have little time for the media in general, because of their past hostility towards intelligence and police operations, in this instance the ABC is to be commended for this report, which contained very little editorial comment.
The potentially dire consequence of this error of judgment or complacency, on the part of the intelligence agencies or police forces involved is deeply disturbing, and cuts to the greatest problem of all in clandestine intelligence operations - protecting the identity and safety of a source.
One of the major principles of intelligence collection by human sources (known as HUMINT) is that the organisation responsible for directing their activities takes a concomitant responsibility for ensuring that protection by any means necessary.
Within the genuine intelligence-gathering organisations and police forces, as opposed to the analytical bodies, HUMINT sources are agents but sometimes more informally or colloquially known as Joes, snouts, snitches and so on.
It can be surmised, and with some justification, that some sources of information are regarded, especially by the police forces, as low life, and there is little point about mincing words or moralising about this. Some who volunteer would be called b******* artists, while others have seen too many spy movies for their own good.
But, generally, the bravery of members of the public who have been approached and volunteered to work either in Australia or overseas against major intelligence targets is undoubted and more often than not, unrecognised.
In this instance, the essential point is that these sources were willing to serve their country for patriotic motives. Some of these informants were paid out of operational budgets, but money was not their primary motivation.
Indeed, even some professional intelligence officers tend to forget just how much an agent/source invests in acting on behalf of the country's interests. It is certainly true that a lot of information collected is of little value, but, as has been stated frequently, intelligence is a discipline equal to any in the arts or social sciences, and one requiring specialisation and a great deal of background knowledge on targets and the human psyche.
Of all the fields of intelligence that HUMINT sources operate, counter-terrorism is possibly the most hazardous of all. While Australia is, at least in theory, a multicultural society, some immigrants unfortunately bring with them all the hatreds from their native countries.
The case officer/agent relationship is almost akin to a familial tie. In some circumstances, the agent is risking his/her life, and, just as police sources can wind up dumped in a river with a cut throat or riddled with bullets, the same fate awaits an unwary agent who is exposed. This is not windy rhetoric: it has happened in Australia.
The psychological demands made on the agent apply almost equally to his handler. And, if the agent is exposed or found out by the target and persuaded to work against his handler, the matter becomes a counterintelligence case and very often a nightmare, sorting fact from fiction.
This somewhat intricate explanation is necessary in the present case because the life of a man has been put at risk by the activities of newspaper reporters and journalists who were given the identity of a person who disclosed valuable information that led to raids on certain premises last year.
What then should we make of the current fiasco? Whatever one may think of the ABC or Media Watch, there is little doubt that the February 13 revelations are profound. The mere fact that nothing has been said in the newspapers or Parliament about this matter is an atrocious reflection upon the integrity of the politicians, judiciary, police and intelligence organisations involved.
No blame can be attached to a journalist for doing his job. The Australian was correct in its own assessment about the information being in the public domain; but why that is so remains unanswered. The ethics of the reporter Simon Kearney and his editor can be described as falling within the usual Australian journalistic standard, and the same can be said of Channel 10 and its reporter John Hill. It is well-known that the media love whistleblowers.
The case of the two informants who provided the information on which intelligence and police forces conducted raids demonstrates that there is a rather large loophole in the law, which not only allowed that information to find its way into a warrant but into the media. Which enterprising official provided a tip-off to the newspaper and Channel Ten? What would they now say if the two informants were subsequently hunted down and killed?
The opportunity should not have been allowed to occur, whereby the source of information could be discovered. And, having been discovered, whatever happened to the old "D notices" which, at least, provided notional protection for a source, even though the old boy network usually spread the identity throughout the journalistic community and beyond?
The matter ought not to be allowed to rest here. The dilatory explanation and so-called assurances given by Attorney-General Philip Ruddock expressing "concern" that AFP search warrants contained information that could enable someone to identify potential witnesses and informants are patently insufficient.
The buck stops at the Attorney-General's door. Claims that he has received "assurances" from the AFP that they "will try to do better in the future" (ABC's Media Watch) are insufficient, if not insulting. This is the greatest setback in counterterrorism operations that local authorities have received, and several serious questions need to be asked.
Why are warrants used by the AFP and served on suspects allowed to contain details of originating information? In the case of ASIO, requests for warrants contained those details but the warrant itself did not. The signature of the Attorney-General, the highest law officer in the land, was deemed sufficient authority.
As most ASIO operations were clandestine, it is understandable that there was no need to publicise the existence of warrants and, indeed, it was only when ASIO commenced reporting formally to Parliament that raw numbers were given of applications and approvals became known. That appears to be a reasonable system.
The AFP warrant system was closely modelled on that of ASIO. Why then were confidential details contained in warrants? Presumably, the AFP used the same method as ASIO when working in criminal cases, but surely counter-terrorism is such an issue that someone, somewhere has fouled up.
Have those who permitted the mistakes been identified? Have they been disciplined?
That being the case, the question is now: what did the Attorney-General know, when did he know it and why wasn't he told before?
A subsidiary question is, as the Australian Parliament met from November 7 to 16, why were no questions asked about this deplorable breach in security? Glib assurances about doing better or trying harder are of little use in themselves.
This catastrophe will make people think twice before volunteering their services. The cause of countering terror in Australia has now been dealt a severe if not mortal blow, all because of bureaucratic foul-ups which should and could have been prevented.
These events obviously raise questions about the AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty, who until this time, has proven to be a capable operator. In other countries, he would lose his job.
Lastly, we know that Attorney General Ruddock is very coy about pursuing cases involving breaches of national security. He declined to prosecute former Office of National Assessments (ONA) officer Andrew Wilkie, who openly used material derived from top-secret sources in speeches as a political candidate and in his book.
No lives were lost over that deplorable lapse.
However, those persons responsible for this recent leak, with its potential to jeopardise Australia's future counter-terrorism operations, deserve the utmost censure.
Key people should be brought to account before lives are lost.
- John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.