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Intelligence review not a pinch on Flood


Graeme Dobell

3 February 2012 13:09

Yesterday's Graeme Dobell post on the Intelligence Review is here.

The Cornall-Black Independent Review of the Australian Intelligence Community falls short when put beside its predecessor, the 2004 Inquiry into Australian Intelligence Agencies by Philip Flood.

On the simplest measure, Flood runs to nearly 200 pages; Cornall-Black’s effort can't make 50 pages. Wordage does not always equate to wattage, but Cornall-Black seem conscious that they have delivered short rations when compared to Flood:

The Flood Inquiry had its primary focus on issues concerning the intelligence that had been provided to government on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Those issues had already received a great deal of public attention and had been the subject of a parliamentary inquiry. As a consequence of this general awareness, Mr Flood was able to publish a comprehensive unclassified version of his report. This Review is different. It is not directed to a particular and well-known area of concern. The Terms of Reference called for a broad investigation into many highly classified or sensitive areas of the agencies' operations and resulted in detailed recommendations, which cannot be made public.

Savour the last bit for its quaint charm. Much may change in the rest of the world, but in Canberra it is still possible to run a straight-faced line about stuff that is just sooooo sensitive and secret, only sound chaps can know about it.

The Cornall-Black characterisation of their predecessor is disingenuous. Flood analysed Australian intelligence failures, shortfalls and ructions that went well beyond Iraq to consider Jemaah Islamiyah, Solomon Islands and East Timor. It is worth a quick recap from Flood to highlight the sharpness that is missing this time. 

On Iraq's WMD, Flood lamented 'a failure rigorously to challenge preconceptions or assumptions about the Iraqi regime's intentions...there is little evidence that systematic and contestable challenging was applied in a sustained way to analysts' starting assumptions.'

Before the Bali bombings in 2002, Flood judged, 'Australia's foreign intelligence agencies underestimated in some important ways the nature of radical Islam in Southeast Asia and the extent to which regional extremists posed a threat to Australia.'

On Solomon Islands, analysts had described the decline in governance and society, 'but there was no clear assessment that the (2000) coup was likely.'

On Indonesia and East Timor in 1998-99, Flood went to some pains to dismiss the argument that had emerged from inside Defence that Australian intelligence estimates had been distorted by a 'pro-Jakarta lobby'.

One of the great strengths of the Flood effort was that his description of the intelligence community could encompass weak as well as strong points. It was that breadth that meant Flood won the day with his recommendation to double the cash being spent. Despite such failures, he said, the structure was sound and needed more money, not revolution.

Cornall and Black ignore this Flood example and too easily take the too-secret-to-say defence. For instance, Cornall-Black adopt without any apparent investigation the figures that Canberra now uses to characterise the success of the counter-terrorism effort:

The Australian Intelligence Community has helped keep the Australian homeland safe from terrorist attacks for a decade despite a series of major plots. Those disrupted plots resulted in 38 prosecutions and 22 convictions. Other potential plots have not been allowed to develop thanks to more than 80 foreign nationals being prevented from coming to Australia on security grounds and more than 50 Australians being denied the opportunity to travel to train for, support or participate in, terrorist activities.

A case-study review of this effort might, for instance, have made some judgment about how much this success was a result of the raft of new legal powers bestowed on the Complex. What lessons have been learnt? What mistakes, if any, have been made?

A big lack in Cornall-Black is any discussion of the contestability of assessments coming out of the intelligence agencies. Contestability was a theme running through the heart of the Flood report. Before his key chapter on Resourcing and Effectiveness of the Agencies, Flood devoted a whole chapter to contestability and the need for analysts to be 'challenged, confronted by different perspectives and alerted to flaws in their arguments.'

How well is the Australian system doing today on achieving contestability? If you are charged with doing a follow-on study to Flood, then contestability is a primary gauge of what Flood sought. All the key issues Cornall and Black were charged with examining (supporting national interests, reforms, working arrangements, practices, collaboration) would have a contestability dimension. Yet the word 'contestability' does not appear. Maybe all that went into the classified version.

The British Cabinet Minister Richard Crossman long ago described secrecy as 'the British disease', and it is one element of our inheritance that still throbs strongly in Canberra's political and bureaucratic veins. The disease produces eunuch reports, bowdlerised to the point of banality. The 50 pages graciously conferred on the public by The Independent Review of the Intelligence Community offer assertions without supporting argument, and conclusions without much context or contest.

Photo by Flickr user ocularinvasion