JOHN MENADUE. Our intelligence agencies are out of control -An edited repost

Jan 17, 2019

 It seems  likely that the prosecution by the Commonwealth Government  of former spy (Witness K ) and his lawyer Bernard Collaery will be heard in closed court. What a travesty of justice this is. Those who authorised the illegal bugging of the East Timorese Cabinet for the commercial benefit of Woodside Petroleum and those who subsequently covered up their activities have not been pursued.. Some of them have been promoted. 

We need intelligence agencies that are both competent and accountable. We have neither at the moment. We have witnessed the abject failure of bank regulators.Regulatory failure in the intelligence sector is even more in plain sight.  

There are particular problems for agencies which operate in secret and with few public checks. In an abuse of power ASIO and its collaborators have been campaigning  overtly and covertly to force a change in Government policy towards China.

There is no effective supervision in the public interest of the Hastie/Lewis partnership . Here we have the parliamentary supervisor of ASIO (Hastie) and the head  of ASIO(Lewis) on a joint ticket. Old SAS colleagues. It is extra- ordinary and dangerous.

The prosecution of Witness K and Bernard Collaery looks very dodgy. It is before a Judge and nor a Jury. Why? The hearing is likely to held not only in secret but late in the day,presumably to minimise media coverage.

I have spoken and written earlier about my experiences and my concerns about  how our intelligence agencies behave.

In my book ‘Things you learn along the way’, published in 1999, I set out some of my reservations. On page 134, I wrote:

“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. Deception of friend, as well as foe, was all in the game. I found many of them brittle, and not all that smart or well balanced. They are however 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. Perhaps we all read too many spy thrillers and vicariously want to be part of the action. Few are immune.’ 

I also set out my particular concern about abuse of security services by government. I wrote (p.181)

‘Foreign Minister Peacock and his department were instructed [by Malcolm Fraser] to open an embassy in Bagdad as a cover for the posting of an ASIS agent, with the task of investigating Whitlam(loan raisings) and his connection in Iraq. Alan Renouf, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and his Deputy, Nick Parkinson, together with Ian Kennison, Head of ASIS, were to say the least disturbed that this was not a legitimate intelligence gathering exercise. As Head of Fraser’s Department I spelt out my concern to Kennison and others and told him that he should refuse to open an ASIS office. If he couldn’t refuse, he should at least insist on a written direction from Peacock, his Minister. The written direction was given, the Bagdad post opened, including an ASIS agent. The post was closed within 12 months.’ 

In October 2012, addressing Catholics in Coalition for Justice and Peace, I spoke about one experience with ASIO when I was Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. I said:

‘A Japanese academic, Professor Hidaka wanted to come to Australia (for a position at the ANU). On the advice of ASIO, Ian Macphee, my minister, decided against a temporary permit for Hidaka to come to Australia. The academic community were very uptight and upset with what Ian Macphee and I had done. Academics carried on a campaign for about six months in opposition to the minister’s decision. One day, out of the blue, the Director General of ASIO, Harvey Barnett, came to see me and said “John, I see you’re copping a fair bit of flack over Hidaka”. I said, “You can certainly say that again. We have copped a lot of flack over the decision which the minister made on your recommendation.” He said, quite clearly, “Would you like us to change the recommendation?”’

So ASIO changed its recommendation and we invited Hidaka to apply again. He told us in effect, to go and jump in the Molonglo.

But all this was some decades ago and critics might say that security services have greatly improved since then. They would need to. In the meantime, the security/intelligence agencies have significantly increased powers and increased resources. But I cannot see much improvement in their performance and accountability. Just 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 appointed 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. Apparently he decided to testify when he leaned 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 2014 the Court ordered Australia to stop spying on East Timor. But the career of those who authorised the bugging of the East Timorese cabinet went from strength to strength.
  • Crickey reported that 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 upset our intelligence  club
  • Man Haron Monis of Lindt Café infamy, was interviewed many times by ASIO. The national security hotline received 18 calls about the behaviour of Monis and his threats. But Monis was found by ASIO not to be a threat.
  • Last year we saw the  parliamentary supervisor of ASIO-Hastie- giving a heads up to an old SAS colleague, the head of ASIO about a speech he would make attacking China . He kept his Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the dark. They did not feel accountable even  to their own Prime Minister. It is the cosy and incestuous intelligence  world in action for all to see and fear. And the SAS brotherhood in action. Scary!

Led by the CIA the ‘five eyes’ have joined  enthusiastically with US attacks on China on many fronts and particularly ‘Chinese cyber espionage’. Spreading suspicion about Huawei is a part of that ‘confront China’ campaign .As a member of ‘five eyes’ we are likely to put CIA’s view of the world and American interests ahead of our own national interests

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

After  Edward Snowden’s amazing revelations about US pervasive spying on friends as well as enemies a review panel established by Barrack Obama recommended that US intelligence agencies ‘ be directed exclusively at the national security of the US and its allies’ and ‘must not be directed at illicit or illegitimate ends such as the theft of trade secrets or obtain commercial gain for domestic industries’.

That is precisely what ASIS was doing in East Timor bugging- to benefit Woodside Petroleum. But ASIS is not in the dock. The whistle blowers are.

My direct experiences of intelligence agencies earlier in my career, and observation in recent years does not give me confidence in these agencies. Intelligence  officers are prone to a sense of superiority, that they are better informed, more patriotic and loyal than others. They attract more ‘odd bods’ than I have ever found in any other organisation I have ever worked for. They are often erratic and not very efficient

Too often ministers and officials invoke national security, relying in some instances on doubtful security advice. The media also allows itself to be silenced whenever the mantra ‘national security’ is rolled out. Journalists at News Corp , Channel 9 and the ABC are only too willing to be imbedded in the intelligence / military complex. It ensures access and stories.

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 policy makers. Those divisions are disappearing with the result that the collection agencies are gaining a greater say in policy.’

That means that more and more untested ‘intelligence ‘is going straight to Ministers and senior officials.

A current example is the head of ASIO accompanying Scott Morrison on his trip to Vanuatu  presumably to provide policy advice on Chinese activities in the South Pacific. It tells us a great deal about the influence of  our intelligence agencies and the  foolishness of our Prime Minister.

And it is not just ministers ,senior officials and the media who are  misled by the security /intelligence club dolling out tit bits of fact along with untested information and speculation. With the increasing focus on terrorism around the world private terrorism and security consultants including at universities have been booming. It has become a major growth industry. I am yet to discover how one becomes a ‘security expert’! Many of them are former intelligence officers.  Many have heavy dependence on news feeds from these agencies just like gullible journalists. When I see and hear so many of these so-called experts on terrorism and security, I do wonder how competent they are. It is becoming a very incestuous security and intelligence club.

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 it is not at all clear how effective they are. All too often the minders of the agencies, like ministers, join the club. In short they are often conned.

The sorry story in the intelligence field of collaboration by regulators and operators has been starkly revealed also  in the finance sector .The  finance regulators joined the banker’s club. We have seen the disastrous consequences.

In such an important and opaque field one would hope that the Opposition would be asking hard questions and preventing needless intrusions into our civil liberties. But not the ALP today. Mark Dreyfus the Shadow  Attorney General and Shadow Minister for National SecurityMinister  has really gone missing. Is he not concerned about the injustice being dolled out to Witness K and Bernard Collaery

There will always be major difficulties and mistakes by organisations that work in secret and without proper checks. That is why we need extremely able and efficient means of supervision  and accountability of security agencies. We have not got that today.

Our financial regulators did not effectively  regulate and control the banks. Our intelligence agencies are  similarly out of effective control.

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