Intelligence agencies have helped precipitate the crisis in our relations with China (An updated post)

May 26, 2021

In Max Suich’s outstanding series in the Australian Financial Review, on 16, 17 and 18 May, on how we got into the pointless confrontation with China there is no doubt that much of the ‘intelligence’ came from US sources and that our naive and China ignorant intelligence agencies tagged along and served up US intelligence dressed up as their own. But in the end the Australian Government is responsible for the mess.

But regardless of how  US and Australian agencies cooperated they have served us badly. I have yet to hear anyone sensibly explain what is the  Government ‘s objective  towards China . Or as Max Suich put it ‘What were we trying to achieve?’.

Maybe it is largely populism and politics…link the yellow peril to the red peril!

Max Suich argues that the pressure to rev up policy against the Chinese stemmed primarily from the Australian intelligence agencies bolstered by Defence. But we can safely assume that most of that came from US sources which  swamp any indigenous Australian sources – especially from technology and cyber.
Kim Beasley told an AIIA audience  some years ago about how much we depended on intelligence on our region from Pine Gap sources. On top of that we have significantly increased the numbers of ADF officers and personnel who are embedded – often in quite senior positions – in the IndoPacific Command in Hawaii , the Pentagon and elsewhere in the US military where they have wide access to US intelligence data and assessments which all too often have proven to be wrong.
All of which percolates back into the Australian security and intelligence organisations and influences considerably their policy advice to the Australian Government. That is where the “push” starts as was so blatantly exposed by the WMD saga where the Bush administration drove Australian Government policy! This is an angle on the vaunted Five Eyes which the media seem oblivious to. Perhaps it would upset their pre conceived views.The briefings they regularly get from our intelligence agencies are painfully evident
Apart from that input, the US Embassy in Canberra has engaged in some very targeted briefing of the Australian media including leaking of “assessments” all with a distinctly anti-China flavour and the State department has funded ASPI to undertake some selective “research”  aimed at stiffening the Australian Government’s China policy.
And there are more than a few occasions when the timing of Australian actions against China point towards a “push” by the US including the proposal for an international investigation into the origins in China of Covid which followed a telephone conversation between Trump and Morrison at a time when the former had decided to undertake a full court press on China.
Details of this have been conveniently lost  by the media. Morrison was not given encouragement for the idea from Merkel, Macron and Johnson who by then were sensibly concerned about the challenges of the inevitable urgency of a global roll out of vaccine and the need to have China involved – what has now become known as Covax. Pompeo certainly added plenty of fuel to the fire on the Uighurs, Hong Kong  and other issues where Australia followed suit rather than headed the field.
The US has been playing us for some time including encouraging/urging us to be the stalking horse on occasion. And our intelligence agencies with only a scanty knowledge of China joined in  the debacle that is now unfolding.

There are particular problems with agencies that operate in secret, with few public checks and rigorous assessment of the material they collect. In an abuse of power ASIO and its collaborators have been campaigning overtly and covertly to force change in Government policy towards China. Max Suich has exposed them.

I have spoken and written often of my concerns about how our intelligence agencies behave. They kid themselves that they are better informed than other people and  more patriotic.

My  experience with people in the intelligence and security community over 20 years taught me to be very cautious. They seriously deceived me twice without any apology or seeming regret.  Their judgement is poor and that is the major problem. Most inhabit a  cocoon where views are unchallenged. They recruit people like themselves with a touch of nepotism thrown in.

They are adept in doling out juicy bits of ‘information’ that are often untested, but draw one into the inner circle of people with privileged information, a twilight world of secrets and gossip. Few are immune particularly ministers and members of parliamentary committees that are supposed to be supervising them. Its called regulatory capture.

My direct experience was some decades ago and critics might say that security services have greatly improved since then. They would need to. I suspect that with significantly increased powers and increased resources they have got worse and more dangerous.

I cannot see much improvement in their performance and accountability. Look at a few recent examples.

  • ASIS bugged the East Timorese Cabinet Room in 2004 to obtain information to help Australia in negotiations over the Timor Gap with its estimated oil and gas reserves worth $40b. The ASIS Director General at the time subsequently became the Director-General of ASIO. He is now the Chair of the FIRB board which advises the government on all foreign investments, including Chinese investment. If there were any serious supervision of ASIS and its leader over this improper and possibly illegal operation in East Timor the Director-General of ASIS would have been at least disciplined. But no – he was subsequently promoted as head of ASIO and later Chair of FIRB where he has considerable influence on government decisions on Chinese investment in Australia.
  • A former senior ASIS officer (Witness K) who had been closely involved in the bugging in Timor had his passport seized and was harassed continually by ASIO because he was proposing to testify on the subject to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. He decided to testify when he learned that former Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer had become an advisor to Woodside Petroleum. The secretary of Downer’s department, the late Ashton Calvert, later took a position as a director of Woodside.
  • In 2013 we spied on Indonesian trade negotiations and passed the information to the US to help US companies
  • ASIS bugged the family of the Indonesian President. Tony Abbott refused to apologise An apology would  have upset the intelligence  club, the FIVE Eyes.

There is legitimate concern about Chinese intelligence activities as there should be about similar activities by our allies particularly for the benefit of commercial firms. All counties are in the spying business. Even Angela Merkel had her phone tapped by US agencies.

But the Chinese are beginners compared with the US which has used its intelligence agencies not only to influence other countries but to overthrow their governments and assassinate their leaders on numerous occasions.

Through a well funded lobby group the Israeli Government is a major influencer on Australian policy in the Middle East.

Intelligence agencies are now very much in the front line of public debate, no longer collectors of information for others to assess and for ministers to decide. As Richard McGregor from Lowy Institute in the SMH of 12 January 2019 put it  ‘The (intelligence) agencies and their consumers in government were once strictly divided into collectors, assessors and policymakers. Those divisions are disappearing with the result that the collection agencies are gaining a greater say in policy.’ But it is no longer ‘a greater say in policy’. they are propagandists for their insular view of the world. They have led the charge against China for which we are going to pay a heavy price. DFAT and diplomacy have been sidelined.

More and more untested ‘intelligence ‘is going straight to Ministers, senior officials, and our gullible media.

Governments have introduced measures in attempts to supervise the performance and integrity of our security agencies, e.g. parliamentary committees and the Inspector-General of the agencies. But all too often the minders of the agencies join the club.

So much of our politics and public ‘debate’, particularly about China is seen through a security/intelligence lens.The intelligence agencies have seized the opportunity with more resources and more powers to fashion the public debate about China. In this unbalanced public debate diplomacy is pushed aside and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is sidelined. As former Ambassador John McCarthy has put it we have embarked on ‘buffoon diplomacy’. Or as Max Suich described it,’unsubtle diplomacy’.

Hardly a day passes without the head of one of our intelligence agencies going public.  We used to think they were the ‘secret service’. If the agencies are not directly selling their wares they are getting friendly think tanks or embedded journalists to promote their anti-China line particularly over naval activities in the South China Sea adjacent to the Chinese mainland. Our tame media turn away from the enormous US military base of Diego Garcia  in the middle of the Indian Ocean which was seized by force and the native inhabitants expelled.

The ‘nutters’ and not DFAT  are in charge of advice to the government as the fiasco in our China relations unfolds. Indeed we do have buffoon diplomacy.

And where in the ALP in all this unfolding disaster?

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