RICHARD BROINOWSKI. The Competence of our Intelligence Agencies

On 6 April, the ABC’s Geraldine Doogue interviewed Nick Warner, head of the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), which coordinates the activities of Australia’s intelligence agencies. During the interview, Warner ventured the opinion that President Trump did the ‘right thing’ in walking away from Kim Jong-un at the US-North Korean Summit in Hanoi at the end of February 2019. Coming from someone whose job is to tell the government ‘how we see the world’, this value-judgement observation casts doubt on the objectivity of the information he gives ministers.

Warner has a distinguished career. Before becoming intelligence supremo he was Secretary of Defence and at another stage, head of the Regional Assistance mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI). And now, in his new capacity as head of ONI, he coordinates the activities, as he told Doogue, of the findings and speculations of 7,000 highly-motivated intelligence analysts in Australia’s ten intelligence agencies, those directed both at external targets and countries, and those with a domestic focus. This used to be the role of ONI’s predecessor, the Office of National Assessments (ONA), but they didn’t have the staff to do it.

As Warner told Doogue, ONI is a ‘major enterprise’, the outcomes of which are ‘greater than the sum of its parts’. ONI watches the world for emerging threats to Australia. So what did he mean about Trump walking away from the Hanoi Summit?

According to North Korean officials, If Trump had stayed on, he’d have received an offer from Kim of closing down the Nuclear facility at Yongpyon. This was a very substantial offer, which would have removed both North Korea’s capacity to keep making bomb-grade plutonium 239 in its reactor, and highly enriched bomb-grade uranium 235 in its centrifuges – both real steps towards total abolition of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. In return, Trump would have been asked to make some reciprocal concessions, such as signing a declaration that the Korean War was over, plus perhaps the ending of some economic sanctions. US officials later claimed that Kim demanded the abolition of all eleven existing sanctions, but a North Korean official denied this, saying they only wanted the immediate lifting of three humanitarian sanctions. The rest could be negotiated at some later iteration of the talks.

Did Warner consider this, and if so, why on earth did he say Trump did the right thing in walking away? Did he also know that John Bolton suddenly arrived in Hanoi just before Trump met Kim, to suggest to Trump that he should demand that before the US offer any concessions, North Korea be asked to declare all its chemical and biological warfare assets, and arrange to abolish them as well as his nuclear arsenal? For this suggestion, according to sources both in South Korea and the United States, was deliberately made by Bolton knowing that Kim would not accept it, and knows achieving Bolton’s objective of having the talks fail.

If Warner knows all this, and he should, why did he think failure of the talks was in Australia’s security interests? And how would the continuation of bilateral US-North Korean denuclearisation talks be inimical to Australia’s security interests? Warner may hold the strongest suspicions that Kim Jong-un’s offer to pursue de-nuclearisation may be a con job. But keeping open the possibility of step-by-step reciprocal concessions by both North Korea and the United States to reduce tensions and head off a shooting war should be seen by any Australian official as consonant with Australia’s security interests.

So what prompted Warner to say what he did? It is not his job to endorse capricious and ill-thought out decisions by the president of the United States, especially those that exacerbate an already dangerous international situation. But he’s trailed his coat here, and needs to explain to the Australian taxpayer what he meant by saying Trump ‘did the right thing’ in walking away from the summit with Kim. Does he want a return to the confrontation and name-calling between Pyongyang and Washington that could have escalated to open hostilities? Does he support what was obviously a ploy by John Bolton to ensure the talks in Hanoi would fail? How can this possibly be in Australia’s national security interests? Does Nick Warner, our leading intelligence officer, share the hawkish views of ASPI that China and North Korea are both a threat to national security and must be stood up to? If so, how would Australia do that? Or does he tell ministers what he knows they agree with?

It’s a great pity that Geraldine Doogue did not put these questions to Warner. She is supposed to have some degree of understanding of foreign policy issues, but she did not display any during her interview.

Richard Broinowski is a former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea


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6 Responses to RICHARD BROINOWSKI. The Competence of our Intelligence Agencies

  1. James O'Neill says:

    I too was astonished by Warner’s remark that Trump did the right thing by walking away. How did that possibly advance the lessening of tensions and making progress toward a settlement of the Korean War, still not officially ended after 65 years? Part of the answer is in Michael Lacey’s comment above. We do not have an independent foreign policy and it is idle to pretend otherwise. On all key issues that means following the US, regardless of the potentially disastrous consequences when their foreign policy is in the hands of the Pompeo, Trump, Bolton triumvirate.
    Fortunately for Korea, President Moon has a sounder grasp of the regional realities. The question is: will he be able to continue with his policy of rapprochement with the North or will the US occupying forces repeat what they have done in the past with Korea and remove someone who does not share their view of the world.

  2. David Macilwain says:

    I also was stunned by the whitewash and eyewash in this interview with the “top spy”, mostly for what it left out. One of the key foci of intelligence now seems to be on cyber-security and cyber-warfare, yet Warner talked of “face recognition” and “gait recognition” as if these were new developments to watch!
    But it was Warner’s remarks on Syria, and Doogue’s acceptance of them, that were most frightening. Without the benefit of any “intelligence services” – other than what those of Russia and Syria choose to reveal, I know that the story that Warner tells about “Baghouz” and the “end of the Caliphate” is nonsense. Most of the IS fighters from that “secret city” on Syria’s Iraqi border appear to have been redeployed by US forces, ready to take part in the insurgency that Warner “predicts” – as he inadvertently admits near the end of the interview.
    We still have no idea what Australia’s role is in Syria, but be sure that there is one!

  3. Tony Mitchell says:

    Warner expressed particular pride in the teamwork of the ten (10) intelligence agencies he wrangles.
    We assume this is accomplished by the weekly collaboration in the new enlarged cone-of-silence of the 10 heads-of-department and their senior lieutenants. With prior submissions mandated from each, a tight formal agenda, KPI’s review, nominations for “conspiracy of the week”; and so on. The refreshments alone are a logistical nightmare – hell, the diets of these fitness freaks……. Not to mention the acronyms in that room ! Long-standing policy will not permit us to know of the exact deliberations – but if you can judge from their faces…….it is serious. Today, they are voting on the prestigious Annual Man Monis -Lindt Cafe Awards which this year has a a strong contender – the East Timor Bug Caper and Cover-up; ( unfortunately historical security, subjudice rules precludes further……. , etc, etc, etc ).
    It must be all worth it so we can sleep soundly. But, I still worry about that Trump.

  4. Jim KABLE says:

    Excellent analysis of a neo-Con(fidence trickster) warrior, Richard. How on earth do we deserve such US-sycophants in our so-called security leaders. And thanks for explaining from whence came ONI – out of ONA. That I did not understand. Is Warner in the position merely because of his family name – some irony in that, surely!

  5. chris smith says:

    Warner opened his presentation by asserting that the intelligence agencies are doing a
    ” fantastic job “. This sufficed to make me apply a “fantastic” discount to everything he said subsequently.

  6. michael lacey says:

    The intelligence agencies are run by neoconservatives they are all linked globally and all spew the same dogma irrespective of who governs.

    We are joined at the hip to the “Neocons” belief that the United States should not be ashamed to use its unrivaled power – forcefully if necessary – to promote its values around the world, the need to cultivate a US empire. Neoconservatives believe modern threats facing the US can no longer be reliably contained and therefore must be prevented, sometimes through preemptive military action.

    Change of government have no affect on intelligence agencies!

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