The Naive and Sentimental Politics Lover

I can’t tell you how disappointed I am that our political leaders have been so badly let down by the intelligence community, not only in the US and UK but in Australia as well. The really tragic thing is that John Howard would clearly have done something completely different if he’d been given correct information.

If there’s a positive thing to come out of the saga, it’s the forebearance and forgiveness our political leaders have shown towards the shortcomings of the spy chappies. It’s inspirational. None of them have been punished or demoted, despite cocking things up so comprehensively. In fact in Britain, the JIC chap who served up all the wrong info was promoted to run MI6, while here at home the ONA’s budget and staff numbers have been doubled. We don’t give our politicians enough credit. To err is human, to forgive divine. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Imagine how richly Andrew Wilkie would have been rewarded if only he hadn’t resigned. He got the intelligence assessment mostly right, a quality that would surely have been treasured. I only hope the public servants will learn the appropriate lesson from our politicians’ moral leadership.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Al Bundy
Al Bundy
2022 years ago

You know what really irritates me about this one, Ken?

I think you’re right.

No head of an intel agency is going to rush onto the ABC and bag the government for ducking the blame when they’ve just had their funding doubled, are they?

cs
cs
2022 years ago

That was as neat as it is sharp.

CurrencyLad
CurrencyLad
2022 years ago

Frankly, I’m suspicious about the general usefulness of intelligence anywhere, in anyone’s hands. Why this fetish for the potential of intelligence?

Deep down, we all know that rat-cunning bastards can organise a goodly number of successful terrorist attacks without anyone ever being the wiser. Every incident is now spoken of as an ‘intelligence failure’ – well, yes, fair enough if you invest mere mortals and mere technology with omniscience. I don’t think any reasonable person can. The notion is preposterous and prey to political manipulation of all kinds.

Howard was castigated – still is by Mr Deegan – for allegedly ignoring intelligence on Bali; he is also castigated for affording authority to the intelligence on Iraq.

Back in the 50s, American schoolchildren were drilled for the possibility of a nuclear attack. We’ve all seen the footage – children diving under desks, with maybe a thesauraus for cranial protection. The whole thing was an exercise in wishful thinking; psychologically, it was mere whistling in the dark.

I get the feeling we’re diving under the intelligence desk throughout the Western world, imagining there’s a way of forever preventing attacks if only we tweak this, adjust that, heed this ‘chatter’, deploy one of those, enquire into something else and spend such-and-such an amount.

Certainly we need an accountable and modern intelligence apparatus but I think everyone’s getting carried away regarding its efficacy. It helps us calibrate and rationalise the intangible and the irrational. Namely, the random, secret, self-annihilating actions of motivated and dangerous individuals. They have technical knowledge, money and no regard for life.

Satellites can’t track every jihadist, much less identify them; spooks can’t stand watch over every bag of explosive fertiliser; drones can’t hover about the backstreet bazarres and warehouses of Baghdad, Instanbul, Tehran or London where men gather and plot their crimes.

I’m not saying we should ignore what our intelligence agencies say. I’m saying let’s not be naive enough to believe that somehow we’ve passed into an era where the instinct of leaders, the Churchillian suspicion of despots and the moral superiority of our democratic polities are somehow obsolete. The accountable action of elected leaders, more than the sub rosa calculus of ASIO Hamlets, will take the war on terrorism forward and allow the West to win it. As it must.

Instinct, suspicion, morality, democracy, accountability (to domestic assemblies) – I’ll take my chances with those beneath the contemporary world’s rickety metaphorical desk.

zoot
zoot
2022 years ago

Too true CL, let’s disband ASIO and ONA now. Let’s go with Howard’s instincts.

CurrencyLad
CurrencyLad
2022 years ago

Be as facetious as you like zoot.

Nowhere did I mention Howard’s instincts. I’m actually talking about keeping the real decision making in the hands of parliamentarians, elected officials and the people.

The left used to think the same way – back when Lionel Murphy wanted ASIO smashed. Sometimes military action – or the avoidance of it, incidentally – will involve unquantifiable judgement calls. I want those calls made by an elected Prime Minister, not an ASIO or ONA egghead.

But that’s just me.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

I think CL’s got a point about spooks and accountability, even if it’s a bit away from Ken’s theme.

Murphy was upset because ASIO then only focused on cold war enemies and leftist dissenters of any kind – they completely missed the bus on Ustasha.

The problem for agencies is that their best work,if there is some such as avoiding attacks, probably remains secret. Still, in Oz we’ve been asleep at the wheel even for less dangerous actions such as the attack on the Iranian Embassy a few years ago.

The most famous story is that the KGB’s network obtained all the information needed on the US’s growing computer and digital technology, but never applied it in the Soviet. It never got past the higher bureaucratic echelons.

I fear that might happen in all agencies, eg like the Jakarta lobby allegations here.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Don

As you suggest in one place, we’re not really in a position to assess how effective (or accountable) our intelligence agencies are. We only ever find out about their failures, and only the ones the politicians either want us to know about or have no choice but to reveal.

Even with the benefit of hidsight, I don’t think you can say ASIO was guilty of a drastic failure on Ustasha. It really WAS a minimal threat compared with the Soviet Union and its fellow travellers. Murphy’s opinion says a lot more about Murphy than it does about ASIO. There will always be smaller threats like Ustasha back in those days (or Ananda Marga) who will sometimes be overlooked, unless we turn Australia into a police state like the USSR was.

I’m not sure to what you’re referring in relation to the KGB finding out about the US’s growing computer and digital technology. Was it a secret?

Robert Merkel
2022 years ago

With regards to the Soviet copying US computer technology, they apparently spent billions trying to steal the plans of and clone stuff like the IBM mainframes of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The yarn goes, IIRC, that they spent more on reverse-engineering the design than IBM did to build it the first time! Here’s a link about the mainframe, but it doesn’t confirm the cost story. In any case, the history doesn’t bear out the claim that the Soviets were uninterested in Western computer technology.
William Safire also told a story in one of his columns about the Russians cloning the PDP-11 minicomputer of about the same era, and then stealing software to control oil pipelines. Safire claims that the CIA got wind of this and inserted a “Trojan Horse” in the PDP-11 designs that the Russians got. The result was a pipeline explosion and from then on the Russians were extremely wary of any technology the KGB managed to steal. As a computer programmer, it sounds like Safire was either not told the correct story, or that he didn’t understand what he was being told (it would be far more likely that the pipeline control software was booby trapped than the machine design), but the gist of the story sounds plausible.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

Ken, I don’t know that that Ustashi threat was all that smalltime back then. I had a friend in a cafe a couple of doors from where a Yugoslav Travel agency got bombed. I can tell you it shook her up quite a bit. Several such attacks occurred in Sydney and Melbourne at this time.

Terrorism was perhaps not such a big deal then. But to the extent of trying to keep such troubles out of Australia, or at least modified to peaceful protest, it should’ve warranted more attention. It was certainly much more important to safety and public security than keeping tabs on Jack Mundy and Don Dunstan.

CurrencyLad
CurrencyLad
2022 years ago

Something had to be done about Dunstan’s Safari Suits of Mass Destruction.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

Ken, further to earlier discussion, my KGB allusion was different to Robert’s account of a sting operation.

Something I read a few years back suggested that the Soviet virtually missed the digital revolution even though its spy system had obtained all the necessary information for them to become ‘state of the art’. The higher-ups in the bureaucracy were not convinced of the value and potential of the information.

I guess we’ve seen a similar thing regarding the Collins and Toohey stories, and the Jakarta lobby. In a bureaucratic structure you only take what you want to hear.

I suggest that that is the flaw with spy systems. They can have the best information in the world, but unless someone’s prepared to evaluate it objectively and act accordingly, it’s not going to do anyone any good.

This is a long way from your opening theme about how nobody’s to blame, nobody’s disciplined (the culprits often promoted as in the Children Overboard), no steps are taken to avoid repetitions. Chris has got a point. There’s got to be a better accountability, even if Winston is now dead.

You might have a point about Donnie’s safari suits, CL, but it shouldn’t have needed Special Branch and ASIO.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I was actually saying quite a lot more than that Don. Click the last hyperlink in the primary post. The problem with irony (even where you signal it) is that most people miss it.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

I must admit I missed any intention of irony, Ken.

In fact, as a follower of the earlier post, I was rather encouraged to think you might’ve had a change of heart.

Who then is accountable in the circumstances? Is it acceptable to allow fudging on the whole thing until everyone, to use a term once favoured by GWB, has ‘moved on’?

I might’ve mentioned that in a similar type of debacle at nearby Gallipoli 90 years earlier, Winston Churchill, as chief promoter of the whole fiasco, resigned. Would that Wolfowitz, Feith and Perle had the same commitment to honour.

It’s over 50 years since Harry Truman was in office. His desk slogan was, “The buck stops here”. Doesn’t it stop at all now?

We saw it earlier with Children Overboard and SIEV-X. Apparently this is a new condition of modern democracies. Nobody’s to blame. Not Ministers, not public servants, not ministerial advisers, not media lackeys spreading the fibs.

As Rumsfeld said in another context, “Shit happens”.

All I can say is that it doesn’t sound very accountable to me.

marklatham
2022 years ago

Cal me a crusty old reactionary,but my old man was in british army intelligence in WW2 and his brother was a corvette comander and experienced U boat hunter who helped develop asdic.
In a real war in WW2 the british recruited the best and the brightest to break german and japanese codes,develop asdic,radar and run agents in europe and deception operations to deceive the enemy!
Of course they had many linguists as well-how many linguists in our spy agencies-bugger all.
We are fighting a phoney war using useless bureaucrats to run our most important agencies-that is if the war on terror is your bag.
If it was real war we would pay real money to high achievers to deliver the goods,howard and downer are just playing games.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Don,

Precisely. It isn’t very accountable at all. And that’s the point. In fact it’s all specifically designed so that the public servants (including the intelligence chappies) will tell the government exactly what it wants to hear, and won’t tell it what it doesn’t want to hear. So enquiries that identify what the intelligence agencies misdiagnosed are missing the point completely. They misdiagnose what the government wants them to misdiagnose, and their principals are rewarded and punished accordingly. How do we restore GENUINE accountability? That’s the point. Chris Sheil and I are as one on this point. It’s how to fix it that’s the problem. And I don’t think it’s fixed just by electing the other mob, because they will have an equal self-interest in plausible deniability once in power. The most we can say is that it might be possible to persuade Labor to enact reforms before they get tired and cynical. But I see no sign of Latham being so minded. That’s ultimately why I’m so despairing about the whole fiasco.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Taking the “equal self-interest in plausible deniability” of Labor a step further. Have a look at Kevin Rudd’s interview on Lateline last night. It’s abundantly clear that he knows (and agrees with) exactly what I’m talking about. But neither he nor anyone else on the Labor side is making any promises that would make any difference. Once in power, they’ll be subjected to exactly the same pressures and temptations, and they’ll succumb to them just as Howard, Keating, Hawke, Fraser and Whitlam did. The only answers are systemic reforms that make it harder to succumb to the corrupting influence of power. Hence, Whitlam and Fraser bequeathed some valuable lasting effects, because they enacted reforms like FOI, AAT, ADJR and the Ombudsman, Senate committee system etc. Latham and his mates are promising no meaningful reforms at all, and once they’re in power we can kiss goodbye to any prospect of achieving them for another generation.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

CL, I don’t know, Dunstan’s pink safari suit was quite fetching.

kyan gadac
kyan gadac
2022 years ago

I grew up in Canberra in the 1960’s and it was evident from my personal contacts then that ASIO /JIO etc. were very much under the thumb of their US masters at the time – hence the Labour Party’s concerns, as expressed by Murphy and others. The Ustasha was a touchstone for concern about US imperialism and their spy agencies – a genuine issue for socialists in Australia at the time.

The problem with reforming spy agencies, here and now, is esentially that they are still, quite obviously, virtual arms of US intelligence. This remains an insuperable issue until economic conditions change.

The best principle for reforming spy agencies is the one of publicity. The best defence against secrets is honesty. Establishing a public intelligence service that treated knowledge as ‘open source’ is the most constructive alternative that I can think of.

Lest you think this madly idealistic, the 9/11 commission agrees with me – albeit in it’s opaque rendering – ‘decentralizing the mainframe’.

mark
2022 years ago

Whereas, Ken, if they *don’t* win the next election we can… ?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark,

This musing about accountability has little or nothing to do with the forthcoming election, because neither side is focusing on it in any meaningful way, or making promises that would make any systemic difference. I expect Labor to be the lesser of two weevils for a while at least, and that’s the main reason why I’ll probably be voting for them. But, in the absence of systemic reform to enhance accountability, I don’t expect anything will really change. I subscribe to the Lord Acton view of politics: Power corrupts etc. Voting is like making good compost, you have to mix and turn over the weeds and manure regularly.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

I think we are together now, Ken. I agree that Labor has shown an equally lamentable commitment to accountability.

At the Children’s Overboard enquiry, Faulkner had them pretty well on toast, but pulled back from dragging in Ministerial advisers or Reith. They eventually pulled the plug on that and SIEV-X when it became clear it was all a yawn to the public, and not winning any Labor votes.

Not good enough in my view. The motivation apparently was that they might one day be in the hot spot. Therefore they should create precedents which’ll make it harder to govern.

So there is not much better, at least at present, to hope for from Labor. On the other hand, when there is such a consensus, all we can do is vote out the party governing. This is what happened with the State Banks failures, even though the policies contributing to it would’ve been the same with Lib govts. Our only form of defence is to vote out those in office.

Hey, Mark. They were pink shorts – shorts- not a pink safari suit. Of course, maybe the choice of pink might’ve stirred up Special Branch and ASIO.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Don, pink shorts with long socks by any chance? Howard was once a safari suit wearer too, I’ve just discovered – some very scary photos here.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

Thanks for that, Mark. Very scary indeed! Wonder if ASIO started tracking him after that safari suit appearance?

For thos with a bent for nostalgia, I worked for the SA Govt Tourist Bureau in Sydney in the early 70s. On our staff was a lady synpathetic to the South African Government then (she’d just returned from a holiday there).

She was more a Ruxton-style old Empire loyalist than an Afrikaner follower, but we used to give her hell especially with Don in charge of our State Govt and Gough in charge of the feds.

There was a chap who used to lean on the front rails outside the office a few days a week. He wore a trenchcoat and hat, had thick glasses and Groucho Marx style eyebrows and moustache. He looked exactly like Bruce Petty’s brilliant caricature of an ASIO agent.

We used to kid her that now Labor was in, ASIO was keeping tabs on her. It was amazing how often he seemed to stare in our window.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Don,

It’s time you admitted that you were a deeply suspicious and compromised character back in those days. Now that communism’s fallen, you really need to make a clean breast of it for your own psychic health. Treat this blog as your very own truth and reconciliation commission. Tell us all about those KGB cell plotting sessions masquerading as tourism promotion committee meetings; the dead letter drops at Adelaide Fringe performances; the weapons training courses presented as escorted package tours to Barossa wineries; steaming microdots off empty bottles of Grange Hermitage after long convivial nights at Balmain eateries. You’ll feel so much better. It must have been hell living a lie all these years. Think how much better Anthony Blunt must have felt once it had all come out. Yes, I don’t doubt for a moment that the SA Govt Tourist Bureau must have been a hotbed of treachery and subversion, richly meriting ASIO’s fumbling attentions.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Don, reminds me of my days in the dying days of the Joh regime. One Labor Day I saw Don Lane (then Transport Minister – having given along with Brian Austin Joh a majority in 83 in his own right by defecting from the Libs post election in return for a cabinet gig – and famously a special branch detective before entering parliament) hiding behind bushes in Albert Park taking happy snaps of us subversive unionists. Or, the standard “undercover” Special Branch agent at demos – mid 40s, always dressed in brown – who’d come up and say “what do you study, comrade?”, to which a good riposte was “Law, Senior Sergeant”. Those were odd days here in Brisvegas.

markltham
2022 years ago

God,I am tired of saying this.
In WW2 when britain was nearly stuffed they set up the SOE,special operations executive.
They recruited the best and the brightest,linguists and lateral thinkers and wrought havoc on the germans.
They cracked the enigma code,they ran agents in europe,they ran disinformation operations and they effectively won the war.The americans cracked the japanese naval codes using gifted individuals and that was instrumental in winning the pacific war.
What do we have?
Half a dozen useless bureaucracies fronted by alexander downer-osama will be quaking in his boots!
Why didn’t we turn jack roche?The british incarcerated or turned every single german agent in england during WW2.
Why didn’t we send our own jack roche to meet hambali and osama?How many arab youths from the western susburbs have we recruited?
The naievity of the terrorists who received a pommy factory worker from perth and supplied him with email addresses and phone numbers astounds me-yet we didn’t try to penetrate them!!!
Downer and howard tell us that we are war-it is bullshit unless we get serious,they are playing games with us.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

“…Grange Hermitage after long convivial nights at Balmain eateries.”

That’s close enough to get me paranoid, Ken! Two of our best promotions were held at Kaiser-Stuhl’s fabulous place at Balmain.

If your sources are this good, I might have to ‘fess up.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Why would anyone take ONA seriously after howard’s production of a ONA document to say Refugee’s in leaky boats throw their children overboard. sources err government ministers.

given what happened to the Defence secretary who was sacked for no reason merely becuae he could be sacked,the promotion of the incompetent but masterly Halton and then the denigration of Keelty I can imagine what pressure was put on staff.

Why did no-one ask what type of WMDs threatened counties.
It wasn’t hard to discover a country needed on the conservative side a missile silo of missiles with armed warheads to threaten a country in other words destroy any means of retaliation.

given that Iraq patently didn’t have this and Blix confirmed that at best their missiles would drop out of the sky halfway to Israel who were they threatening?

Iraq had a clapped out airforce, an army that that had been outfought by first Iran and then the allies and had gone further downhill who were they going to threaten?

Let us assume for a moment that Iraq did have a nuke. What would happen if they let it go at the US. Perhaps 50 or 60 back in return? Hussein has never shown a deathwish so why was this theory ever given credence?

AQ bought only proven weapons. given that Iraq had never tested any of its ‘WMD ‘ stock why would AQ waste valuable money on unproven goods?

The only time we heard about WMD from the famous trio was that they used it against the Kurds and Iran.
Anyone who thinks firing cannisters from a helicopter and chemical laced artillery shells is mad. Mind you It didn’t do Iraq much good against Iran.

There was never any credible evidence of a collabarative relationship between Aq and Iraq. Indeed who has been strengthened by the war AQ.

It seems to me the main question to ask is why would anyone trust Bush , Blair or Howard over a war again.
either they are all as thick as me oe they are liars either way not great leadersip material.

Michael Muscat
Michael Muscat
2022 years ago

People that know, will tell anyone who asks.The reason the US and the coalition attacked Iraq, was that they,that is Iraq, could not fight back.
MickM

trackback
2022 years ago

Flooding the zone

So the Flood inquiry into how Australia’s intelligence agencies (mis)handled information that led to our involvement in the Iraq invasion is out and no-one is to blame and the government-appointed friend who was in charge of the report reports that…

trackback
2022 years ago

On your bike jack

Let’s get this straight. The Flood inquiry “… has found that intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was ‘thin, ambiguous and incomplete’ … The report raises concerns about intelligence on weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war …