Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:45 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:45 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: The misguided affection for secrets


Sam Roggeveen


25 November 2008 15:39

John Hannoush writes:

I greatly appreciate the material on the NIC estimate. Graeme Dobell's interesting back comparison seem to suggest that forward looking stuff  is a linear (or some other functional) projection of the present.
One question: the competitive advantage of governments is presumably the superior access to intelligence material and what other countries are thinking. But this kind of long-term analysis would not benefit as much from such an advantage — and the sources they use are presumably largely public. So why should people be excited about it, and why should we be so keen to have Australian agencies publish thieir own speculations? 

In my experience of the intelligence world, John is absolutely right. When it comes to making long-term strategic assessments, secret intelligence is rarely more valuable or useful than publicly available sources. But there remains in our intelligence community and in government a tendency to believe that information gathered secretly is inherently more valuable than that which comes from open sources.

The Howard Government reinforced this tendency through its massive expansion of our spying agencies (ASIO, ASIS and DSD) while doing nothing to increase our diplomatic representation abroad. Personal experience tells us that we gather tremendous amounts of useful information just by being in the room, and that's what our diplomats do for Australia every day. They don't need to skulk in corners or place listening devices to do this job. They just need to be knowledgeable, sociable and inquisitive. Our diplomats are very good at this, but there too few of them.

All of that said, there is nevertheless reason to think that an Australian intelligence community estimate of the global future, even one based solely on open sources, would be valuable. The main reason is resources: there is simply no other institution in Australia that can boast so many subject matter experts whose daily work it is to observe a country or region or terrorist group or conflict.

The two intelligence assessment agencies, ONA and DIO, are essentially large think tanks that produce reports for government. ONA has about 145 staff, and while I can't find figures for DIO, it is bigger. Not all of these people are analysts, of course, but those who are not analysts are employed to support analysis, which reinforces the point about resources. Think tanks like the Lowy Institute go nowhere near to matching these numbers; some university faculties get closer, but they are poorly resourced and are less focused on policy.

Now, recalling the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, it should be said that bigger numbers do not guarantee better analysis, and can actually produce worse analysis. But how would we know? The pre-occupation with secrecy in our system prevents us from seeing any of the analysis DIO and ONA produce, making it impossible to form a judgment about whether taxpayers are getting their money's worth. So that would be another good reason for supporting an Australian version of the NIC estimate.