Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:46 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:46 | SYDNEY

Reader ripostes: Researching secrecy

This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

7 March 2012 09:40

This post is part of the Unisys forum on the future of secrecy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Below, a comment from David Gizzi, but first, Alex Burns writes:

Austhink's Paul Monk raises several important points in his posts to Lowy's debate on excessive government secrecy. I discovered Monk's perspective on the openness of information through rather unusual circumstances. Whilst preparing for PhD research at Monash on strategic culture, I found several of Monk's second-hand books. Reading Monk's hand-written margin notes to Claire Sterling's controversial study The Terror Network provided a rare insight into the late Cold War and how one of Australia's most influential intelligence analysts thinks through ambiguities.

Australia's intelligence community is less open to constructive debate than its United States or Great Britain counterparts. Agencies like the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation ran highly visible media campaigns after the September 11 attacks to hire new intelligence analysts. But this didn’t necessarily translate into a more sophisticated understanding in Australia of how intelligence works. Recently, the Society for Historians of American Relations (SHAFR) has run several articles on freedom of information and digital archives. However, Australia has more restrictive laws on freedom of information disclosures — which the intelligence community can be exempt from — compared with the United States or Great Britain. These restrictive laws prevent SHAFR's research methods from being used here.

There are many constructive models of how academics and policymakers can work closely with the intelligence community yet maintain a critical distance. Amy Zegart at the University of California Los Angeles has analysed the formation of the United States national security state (Flawed By Design) and the pre-September 11 track record of intelligence reforms (Spying Blind). Columbia University's Richard K Betts (American Force) and Robert Jervis (Why Intelligence Fails), University of Georgia's Loch Johnson (National Security Intelligence), and RAND's Gregory Treverton (Enemies of Intelligence) exemplify the sophisticated academic research in United States intelligence studies. Christopher Andrew (Defend The Realm), Tim Weiner (Legacy of Ashes; Enemies) and Timothy Naftali (Blind Spot) have each written critical histories of United States and Great Britain intelligence agencies that, despite their limits, inform and educate.

It is difficult to see how comparable research could be done in Australia given current restrictions. Consequently, we often have an impoverished understanding of the role, history, successes, and challenges of Australia's intelligence community. Until reform occurs, emerging researchers will have to settle for unorthodox methods like my encounter with Monk's analytical tradecraft.

David Gizzi (nb. This email refers to a discussion on intelligence and secrecy which occurred on The Interpreter last week, just before our Unisys forum was formally launched):

I am a PhD student at the University of Wollongong, and I have enjoyed the discussion on secrecy at The Interpreter. Here's my two cents.

The closing remark of Hugh White's post about expenditure on the Australian Intelligence Community stated that 'we need more, better-directed intelligence, as well as more blogs and think tanks'. In a general sense, I agree with this statement, but I'm not sure whether having more blogs and think tanks would help or hinder the already complicated intelligence-gathering process.

This is because the existence of informed publications does not necessarily lessen the workload on analysts. Those individuals that contribute to The Interpreter are some of the most informed individuals in the country on IR matters, and as mentioned by Alex Burns, Australia has many seasoned scholars on intelligence and national security matters. But whilst the valuable work of these individuals has utility in painting an intelligence picture, the use of this material would still (I would imagine) need to undergo rigorous background checking.

I think that any assessment made on the usage of collated open source material needs to take into account what the funding and manpower gap is between the checking of previous academic analysis, and conducting the raw data harvesting independently. Of course, as previously mentioned by Scott Lowe, the unclassified review does little to illustrate where these gaps are, or the direction of funding and manpower. So for most of us this will remain, in the words of Rumsfeld, a known unknown. 
On the other hand, if we accept trusted academic analysis and collation of open source material as fact, then perhaps we could better direct funding towards the more difficult task of uncovering covert material.  But would this be so wise?