Spying and Intelligence; 20 November 2013

Spying and Intelligence; 20 November 2013

The issue of spying is topical, with the United States recently exposed for tapping the phone calls of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Australia is currently in trouble with Indonesia because an Australian intelligence agency sought to monitor telephone conversations made by senior Indonesians, including President Yudhoyono. For both Merkel and Yudhoyono, these activities—which amounted, pure and simple, to spying—were repugnant and unacceptable, especially given that so-called friendly nations had undertaken them.

Spying is an activity undertaken clandestinely, with or without the knowledge of the person, people or nation being spied on. Certainly, anyone operating at a high political or bureaucratic level needs to assume that foreign intelligence agencies, probably hostile (although friendly nations also spy on each other), will attempt to monitor his or her activities and conversations. To think otherwise would be naïve; to act otherwise may weaken a nation’s security. I use the word ‘naïve’ because a quick Internet search on ‘Australian intelligence agencies’ reveals that Australia has six intelligence agencies. Indonesian authorities also could make such searches. Similarly, they should have informed Indonesia’s leaders to be diligent and prudent when talking in non-secure environments, on non-secure devices, and with foreigners.

Australia’s major intelligence agencies comprise:

  • Australian Secret Intelligence Service, which collects human intelligence overseas;
  • Australian Signals Directorate, which collects information electronically (and which allegedly, and almost certainly, has ‘monitored’ Indonesia’s senior officials’ activities);
  • Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation, which collects imagery and geospatial intelligence;
  • Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, which collects and analyses intelligence about threats in Australia by Australians or foreigners, including diplomats;
  • Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO; for which I once worked), which analyses intelligence provided by other agencies, Australian and non-Australian, chiefly for a military audience;
  • Office National Assessments, which does similar work to DIO but at a higher level for Australia’s prime minister and cabinet.

Each intelligence agency has its own website, which discusses its supposed capabilities and operations. I say ‘supposed’ as intelligence personnel will only tell you what they want you know, not the whole story.

Other Australian intelligence operatives collecting and/or analysing material include civilian and military diplomats stationed overseas in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and intelligence bodies in the Australian Navy, Army and Air Force. There also are law enforcement-type intelligence agencies, including the Australian Federal Police (AFP), intelligence bodies in state and territory police forces, Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, Australian Crime Commission, and the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC). Some of these, such as DFAT, AFP and AUSTRAC, also collect information overseas or from sources overseas.

To some extent, these abovementioned organisations engage in clandestine activities. This ‘spying’ may create intelligence, although not necessarily. Certainly, in my experience as an intelligence analyst in the 1980s—which was before the powerful Internet came into being—there was secret or classified intelligence that was not terribly useful. Much of what was obtained clandestinely could have been obtained through open, unclassified sources, particularly from an enterprising journalist with a wide and well-informed network. A lot of information also was just that … information, without the added analysis or inclusion of other details that might make it relevant.

Secret intelligence did provide two things, however. First, some otherwise-unobtainable phone intercepts: I recall reading the captured conversations of some South Asian leaders. While ‘juicy’, they were not really useful or informative. (Mr Yudhoyono may therefore possibly have little to worry about.) Second, timeliness. In my days, the large and sophisticated worldwide communications network that Australia and its intelligence partners (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand) possessed meant that we usually received advanced warning, only by an hour or two, of a major international event. DIO did have wire services, but these invariably reported events after the classified network. This advantage has probably now faded, given that communications have advanced significantly worldwide.

There are other issues with intelligence agencies. First, it is almost impossible for an outsider to determine whether these bodies are good, bad or indifferent. They are ‘closed shops’ not subjected to open parliamentary and media scrutiny. We therefore have to take on face value that these secretive entities are efficient, ethical and do good work. Hence their great fears when people like Ed Snowden leak ‘highly sensitive’ information that may show them in a poor light. This relates to the second point: paternalism and trust. Intelligence agencies tell us that we are at risk, but that they can’t tell us from whom or why, as this may betray their sources or compromise their operations. We therefore have to trust that what they say has veracity. This convenient, self-serving argument is difficult to counter. This relates to a final point: in my experience, intelligence agencies tend to over classify information. This adds to their mystique—and our inability to scrutinise them and their material.

One could get paranoid about all of this spying activity, particularly when realising that other nations, including Indonesia, have similar bodies. We all are being watched—possibly excessively. However, a point to remember is that intelligence agencies do not necessarily fully protect or save nations. Despite their worldwide reach and resources, the US’s intelligence agencies did not prevent ‘9/11’. (We may, of course, have been saved from other serious security or ‘terrorist’ threats, but intelligence agencies can’t, or won’t, tell us.) Despite its fearsome reputation, the Soviet Union’s KGB (Committee for State Security) failed to stop the USSR from totally disintegrating. Ultimately, a nation’s openness and transparency may be a far better defence than it being closed, secretive and choosing to engage in clandestine activities that antagonise its neighbours and cause them to retaliate—invariably clandestinely, of course.

Christopher Snedden
20 November 2013


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