The terrible reputation and performance of intelligence agencies

Jul 16, 2022
Coat of arms of Australia
Image: Wikimedia Commons

At some stage Albanese may need to re-examine Shearer’s role as head of the Office of National Intelligence.

Andrew Shearer did not expect to remain head of the Office of National Intelligence (ONI) after the election. It wouldn’t have been surprising if he were replaced from what is an extraordinarily powerful job at the pinnacle of the Australia’s sprawling intelligence apparatus. At the time of his appointment in 2020, a Labor staffer told journalists the Opposition had indicated to the then prime minister Scott Morrison that it didn’t have confidence in Shearer, describing him as a “partisan operative”. Others say he has a well established reputation as a right wing hawk keen to promote his own views. He has also worked for several military hawks including Tony Abbott when Prime Minister.

However, the incoming prime minister Anthony Albanese immediately retained Shearer as the ONI head. Three hours after he was sworn in as prime minister, Albanese was flying to Japan with Shearer who briefed him at length about the forthcoming meeting of the Quad (the grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia) set up to help contain China.

ONI gives Shearer privileged access to brief the prime minister in person every day.

Given all the other demands on a prime minister’s time, this access should be cut back. A briefing could be supplied in writing to a senior public servant or staff member from along with other views from other knowledgeable sources. Unfortunately, each side of politics now seems to treat intelligence as if it is always highly valuable. Instead, it has a terrible reputation for being badly wrong on major occasions. The phoney intelligence justifying the invasion of Iraq is a disastrous example. Paul Malone recently gave another example in Pearls & Irritations when he reported fresh evidence that US, UK and French planes bombed Syria in 2018 on the basis of false intelligence about Syria’s use of (non-existent) chemical weapons.

Albanese needs to spend a lot of time dealing on difficult issues facing his government, including the impact of floods, fires and rising prices. If he’s to make good on his statement on election night that Labor will ensure “no one is left behind”, he needs to focus on those at the bottom of the heap as well as deliver on promises to improve schools, lower the cost of childcare, reduce inequality, address rising Covid numbers, and make big breakthroughs on tackling global warming which is a primary concern of the Pacific Islands nations.

Fortunately, there is no plausible reason for treat China as a military threat to Australia requiring daily briefings and vast spending. In particular, there is no justification for Australia to spend at least $200 billion on nuclear submarines when modern conventionally powered ones are better, harder to detect, and available well before 2242 – the earliest date the first nuclear one could be operational.

Shearer got the job of getting Americans to offer to sell Australia nuclear submarines. It’s usually the task of departmental officials – not someone in charge of intelligence assessments – to take the leading role in choosing the best big-ticket defence acquisitions.

Less surprising Shearer and the head of Australian Secret Intelligence Service Paul Symon took an interest in the Solomon Islands. In April the Sydney Morning Herald reported from seemingly well based sources that Australian intelligence services knew a secret security pact between the Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavarre and China had been in the works for months and decided to encourage a leak from within the Solomons as a last resort to stop it. The SMH said the document was posted online on March 24 by an advisor to Sogavare’s rival Daniel Suidani, the Premier of Malaita. The SMH said it had confirmed “Australian spies were aware of the document before it appeared online and had a role in making it public, but declined to say what it was that role was”.

This was a long way from the earlier practice that neither Australian spies nor intelligence analysts should actively engage in “dirty tricks”, such as leaking against another country – in this case one that is a member of Australia’s “Pacific Family”.

Following the failure of the leak to stop a relatively modest agreement with China going ahead – it contained nothing about letting China build a military base there – Shearer and Paul Symon met with Sogavare to try to talk him out of the agreement. They failed. One larger point is why intelligence officials approaching a foreign political leader when this is properly is the job of diplomats.

Symon gave a speech at the Lowy Institute in May covering two issues of interest. One was his claim that an increasing number of disaffected Chinese officials are feeding information to Australian intelligence officers. It was an unusual disclosure for an intelligence chief that could that have alerted Chinese authorities to keep a closer eye on who’s in contact with Australia intelligence organisations. Secondly, during question time, he said what is going on in the Solomon Islands “is a very big deal for Australia, for the region and the citizens of the Solomon Islands”.

It’s not clear why it is such a big deal for Australia. The Solomon Islands is a sovereign country that can enter into an agreement with China if it wishes to provide police, and training for local police, after rioters burnt down Chinese businesses in the capital Honiara and looters destroyed shops. Sogavare said he won’t let China to build a naval base. Even if it did, it would be 2000 km from Australia. Other countries don’t panic because a neighbour that’s closer than that this has potentially hostile naval base.

The SMH said a Chinese naval base in the Solomon islands would strain Australian military resources and cut off shipping supply lines from Australia and New Zealand to Asia in the event of a conflict. This is most unlikely. Instead, the base would be of no significant military value as the long supply lines back to China could easily be interdicted and the base destroyed. What never gets a mention in these alarmist scenarios is that the US has five military bases on Pacific islands and it is getting more. The US is the country with the dominant military power in this region, not China.

The Pacific Islands Forum, which was held this year in Fiji from July 11 to 14, asked major powers not to speak at the leaders meeting on the last day. But US Deputy President Kamala Harris earlier gave a virtual address to the forum while China did not. It had spoken in earlier years. Harris said the US would establish two new embassies in the region and increase aid funding from $21 million a year to $60 million for 10 years. She also claimed that international rules and norms “have brought peace and stability to the Pacific for more than 75 years – principles that importantly state that sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states must be respected; principles that allow all states, big and small, to conduct their affairs free from aggression or coercion”.

That would be wonderful if true. The US and Australia engaged in a horrendous war in Vietnam which borders the Pacific Ocean. In a momentous act of foreign interference, the US also prevented an important election going ahead to unify Vietnam. The people of Indo-China were no threat to Australia or the US. But the US, and to lesser extent Australia, subjected them to death and disfigurement from carpet bombing, deliberate crop destruction, torture, massacres, assassinations, napalm, and dioxin – the persistent poison that still condemns anguished mothers to give birth to terribly deformed children they spend years nursing.

After having dinner with prime minister Sogavare while both were attending the forum, Anthony Albanese said he was “very confident” that there will be no Chinese bases in the Solomons. He should’ve been confident. Sagavare had made clear many months ago that there was no mention of a military base in the so-called security pact and one wouldn’t be built.

On the eve of this year’s forum, a group of former Pacific Island leaders urged Australia not to approve any new coal or natural gas projects because they were worried about global warming which seriously affects the islands. Australia did not agree But Albanese promised current leaders on Wednesday he would “bring a new era of cooperation” with the region.

Although the Forum has 18 members, four stayed away this year for various reasons, the most serious being that of Kiribati which complained Micronesian countries were not given as much power as the Polynesians. One commentator said Kiribati’s absence was due to Chinese influence, without offering a jot of evidence. Even if Kiribati doesn’t re-join, the US will be able to rely on three members that will never support China because they have Compacts of Free Association with America. Despite the title, they are de-facto colonies.

In any event, if Shearer was involved initiating a “dirty tricks” operation against the Solomons government, it would hardly help re-enforce Albanese’s messages of goodwill and cooperation to the forum.

At some stage Albanese may need to re-examine Shearer’s role as head of the Office of National Intelligence.

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