RICHARD BUTLER The Espionage Olympiad and the Art of “Plausible Deniability”.

Jun 17, 2019

If there was a competition between the key ways in which international relations is conducted, aside from the use of military force, then the area of intelligence gathering and the covert pursuit of national objectives – all-round spookery – would easily win gold. It is widespread, has been entrenched for centuries and, nothing matches its deployment of hypocrisy, moral relativism and, all round obscurantism. It is also an endless source of fascination and entertainment; in both fact and fiction.

Three live instances of these truths deserve mention; two of them reported in Pearls and Irritations.

First, the continuation of legal action by the Australian Government in connection with the revelation that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) was deployed in 2004, against the Government of Timor Leste. It’s bugging of the Timor Leste Cabinet room was designed to provide Australian negotiators knowledge of Timor Leste’s positions in the bilateral negotiations, then taking place, on.the maritime border between the two countries. This would determine access to the oil reserves worth some $40 billion in the area.( See Pearls and Irritations; Lateline report, August 2nd, 2018).

Given the interests of Woodside Petroleum in those resources, Australia’s covert action has been described as industrial espionage. But, Australian national intelligence capabilities were deployed and, now, the Government is pursuing the former ASIS officer who blew the whistle on it and, his lawyer. The government asserts that the revelation of ASIS’ actions are matters of national security. For this reason the trials involved are being held in camera. (For a fuller account of these circumstances; see Pearls and Irritations August 13, 2018, in which an op-ed by in the Washington Post of August 13, 2018 ,by Ramesh Thakur and me, is posted).

The Government’s conduct in this case raises many serious questions of domestic and international law, human rights and, policy. Chief among these is the questions of the basis on which the Government can declare matters to be of national security importance and, how, if at all, that authority, and the actions taken flowing from its exercise, is scrutinised.

At present we face full blown obscurantism, allegedly for our own good. (See Ramesh Thakur’s blog in Pearls and Irritations, June10th, 2018 on the expansion of allegedly security related law in Australia).

Secondly, the revelation of the establishment in Sydney of an office of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), tasked with both acquiring a stake in Australian RandD which may be of interest to the US and, naturally, the monitoring of scientific and technical developments in Australia which may not suit US interests or, worse, may be of interest to adversaries of the US. Reportedly that office has hundreds of millions of dollars to support its work, including by buying into Australian entities. (see Pearls and Irritations, post by Ben Grubb and Sydney Morning Herald, June 11th, 2018)

This report is interesting because of the detail it gives, of a particular CIA operation targeted within Australia. Any expression of surprise, however, would be misplaced.

The CIA is massive organisation. It has always worked extensively in both passive and active ways. It collects data, by every means, human and technical, overt and covert; and, then it writes assessments for government. But, it also has a record of designing and conducting interventions to change the material facts on the ground, including by coercive means and, certainly through buying influence or assets. This reality is well understood, in both factual and fictional accounts, the former sometimes, as the saying has it, stranger than the latter.

As head of UNSCOM, the UN operation to remove Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, I received significant support from the CIA and from a number of other UN member states. They were responding to the request of the UN Security Council to provide UNSCOM with all possible assistance. The intelligence products we thus received were mostly useful but, the utility of that product declined whenever they crossed over from strict analysis into political advocacy. The US and other permanent members of the Security Council were given to crossing that line.

The CIA earns its gold medal on all counts: hypocrisy, moral relativism and, obscurantism. This is, in fact, what those who commission it and, pay for, expect of it. As they should, if they are to have an effective service.

But, we don’t pay for them and the question of whether US national interests align with ours is crucial, in the context of their new, expanded venture, within Australia.

In the last couple of decades, our political leaders have insisted with escalating determination, that there is no daylight between US and Australian national interests. This is clearly mistaken as is the parallel certitude that, because of the Alliance, the US will always defend what we identify as our vital national interests.

Australian authorities are aware of the new CIA office in Sydney and of why it says it is there. Dare we hope that its activities will be monitored and there will be no blank acceptance that because it’s the US; specifically, “The Company,” as the CIA has become known, there should be no concern that its actions may not align with ours interests. It is a gold medallist in the field and, that includes a considerable talent for patriotic hypocrisy.

Remember too that the hallowed operational principle which supports obscurantism is that of “plausible deniability”. A rough definition of this artful, even gracefully expressed concept is: the lie you design to be uncrack-able. The art of this should not be permitted to draw attention away from the elemental fact that what is at issue is, a lie.

Thirdly, during the last two days in the US, there has been more than the usual consternation over remarks made by Trump. They were relevant to the subject at hand here.

He said that, in the future, he would be prepared to accept the provision to him of intelligence on his political opposition offered by a foreign Government. This is illegal in the US and when it occurs, there is a legal obligation to report it to the FBI.

It would be tedious in the extreme to go beyond recalling that it was precisely such action by him with respect to Russian origin intelligence on Hillary Clinton, which he publicly asked them to provide during the 2016 campaign; which they did within a matter of hours; that led to the whole Mueller enquiry saga.

It is not clear where this particular Trumpism will lead politically, but it has authored an instant public discussion in US political and media circles of what could be called legitimate as against illegitimate uses of intelligence services and their product. And, here, the hallmark of all such discussions – hypocrisy – has been on majestic display. It would not be an oversimplification nor do injustice to an important debate, to venture that the simplest definition is the apposite one: legitimate uses are those we like and, by definition, the illegitimate are those we do not.

This working definition is supported by the constancy of the moral relativism to which all western mainstream media is given when they unfailingly report all instances of foreign spying, hacking, internet scams etc, as wickedly contradicting some basic morality, to which we westerners unfailingly subscribe; indeed, invented.

This stance is ludicrous. Virtually all states do it – spookery – especially the big power powers. Australia does it.

There’s no point in suggesting that intelligence and related work should be abolished. It will not be and, if we are told that action is being taken to do so, the geiger counter designed to register the presence of attempted plausible deniability, should burst into life.

There is every point, however, in suggesting that it’s clearly harmful effects upon us, particularly those flowing from repressive domestic law, should be mitigated through: our own strict regulation of our own intelligence efforts and, vigilant monitoring of the efforts of outsiders targeting us, including those of our friends.

Our own domestic legal regime with respect to counter-terrorism objectives has become excessive and is doing significant harm to our domestic political and legal structure and the rights of our citizens.

There should be a medal, of some colour, for those who get the law and liberty mix right, while maintaining a secure society. We should try to earn one.

By way of historical reflection, Elizabeth I directed her Secretary of State, Francis Lord Walsingham, to establish an English espionage/intelligence capability. He did so. So, it could be said that MI6 is 500 years old.

Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations; Executive Chairman of UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq


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