Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 11:22 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 11:22 | SYDNEY

A meagre intelligence review


Graeme Dobell

2 February 2012 15:15

The Independent Review of the Australian Intelligence Community is thin gruel.

A hungry critique of the report prepared by Robert Cornall and Rufus Black would be that it tastes more like an insider's review than an independent inquiry. Yes, complaints about the food value of the report borders on the carping, since food of any sort in this area needs to be prized, however meagre the serving. Official signposting about the Complex is so unusual as to be valuable just for the fact that it exists, even if it doesn't offer much in the way of calories.

The usual Canberra response to the journalist cry of 'Where's the beef?' tends to be that the hacks are always hungry – when Oliver Twist grew up, he became a reporter so he could keep pleading for more.

To get some context, consider the views of two Australian prime ministers on what the intelligence/national security community has been up to. One is acid, the other is almost a classic in the 'no worries, it’s all good' genre. The soothing words come from Julia Gillard, releasing the public version of the report:

  • Australia's intelligence agencies are performing well following a period of significant growth to deal with the security challenges of the 9/11 decade.
  • Australia and its citizens are safer than they would otherwise have been as a result of intelligence efforts.
  • Our intelligence capabilities have contributed significantly to the global security effort.
  • Australia has built intelligence capabilities broadly commensurate with our growing security challenges.
  • The current basic structure of the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC) remains appropriate, including the operational mandate of agencies.

Well, that's all OK. Any dissent from this benign view is to be treated as a form of 'noises off' — muffled discordance well beyond Canberra.

For the negative case, turn to a former prime minister who is still listed in the history books as a conservative. Consider Malcolm Fraser's spray, in this 2010 interview, on security laws that 'are worse than those in any other country that would claim to be democratic' and on the 'foolish and stupid' way ASIO uses its powers:

When you ask organisations like ASIO what do they need to make Australia secure in the age of terrorism, they go to quite extreme lengths, as our laws now do. The new ASIO building being built in the parliamentary triangle, I think it's a total offence to a democratic nation, I really do; we've had one really serious bomb incident in Australia and I was prime minister at the time, the Hilton bomb (in 1978). And I can remember asking everyone, 'Have you got enough power to deal with this?' 'We're not used to this in Australia. Is there any shortage of powers available to ASIO, the police?' 'No, no, what we need is better intelligence, better information.' Now, if you look at the extension of powers that have been put in place, it's an utter offence. People just sit down and accept it, you know. They can come in here and tap you on the shoulder: 'So we think you saw something, you're coming away with us.' You can't ring up family, husband, anyone; you can't even get a lawyer. You disappear for a while, while you are interrogated. And if you don't behave right, you can go to jail for five years.

One way of damning the Cornall-Black effort is to consider the job it does in addressing Fraser's concerns about the increase in the size and power of the Complex over the decade. The effort is Appendix 3, on 'Intelligence, Oversight, Safeguards and the Law', which comes to the comforting conclusion that after a 'decade of legislation creating new terrorism offences and conferring new powers', Australia has struck a new balance which 'remains right for the future we face.'

The sense of comfort is rather undercut by one of the last points the review makes: 

The use of Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance platforms has been subject to criticism from human rights organisations. Close analysis of their concerns suggest that this is an area that requires considerably more deliberation. If the use of important new capabilities like these is to retain public support, there needs to be a clear articulation of any ethical issues involved in managing them effectively and the way they are used.

Yes, a clear articulation of ethical issues is always useful. Perhaps a philosopher like Professor Black (ethicist, theologian and management consultant) could have offered some thoughts on this in his report. Likewise, Robert Cornall (eight-and-a-half years at the head of Attorney-General's) could have gone beyond describing the oversight mechanisms to offer some thoughts on how well they work, or even provided a few examples beyond the fact that the appeal court overturned the Jack Thomas terrorism conviction.

The sharpest way to view the Cornall-Black effort is to do a taste-test comparison with its predecessor, the 2004 Inquiry into Australian Intelligence Agencies by Philip Flood. The latest effort is supposed to build on and advance Flood's work, but the snack served up by Cornall-Black makes Flood's effort look like a banquet. More on that in a follow-up post.