Monday, November 25, 2013

TO SPY, OR NOT . . .

At one time the image of the spy was straightforward . . .

(Sigourney, not Mel)

Today we dismiss the deeper understanding that comes from human interaction. We think we can read peoples minds by listening in to their phone conversations.

This column for the Canberra Times stands back and asks what it is all that spying is actually attempting to achieve . . .


Everyone has undoubtedly come to their own conclusions about what actions should be taken as a result of the spying scandal, so there’s no need for this column to pontificate any further. As long as this government acts immediately to follow your prescriptions, we’ll be right.

It’s great that we have so many Australians who know exactly how to solve this delicate issue – even those were previously unaware of the existence of the Defence Signals Directorate (now Australian Signals Directorate); its capabilities; and perhaps even the name of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s wife, Kristiani Herawati (known more familiarly throughout the archipelago, of course, as Ibu Ani). So many people have already proclaimed themselves obviously so much more expert than I that it is with some hesitancy I venture to make any further contribution.

But this is the point about the spying revelations: they’re highly complex and there are only a few people who can really say anything knowledgeable about them. Much of what I’ve heard so far is about as wrong and misguided as the motivation behind the compilation of the original, boastful, presentation; the one that was treated so casually by first the US, then the Guardian.

Finding a way out of this impasse with Jakarta requires much more than an understanding of these technical issues. Far more important is the ability to recognise cultural concerns and restore the relationship, because this is critical. That’s what strategy is all about. So what enduring principles can we bring to bear on the crisis at hand?

The first – vital – requirement is to recognise its severity. This requires balancing up competing needs to choose the least-bad path forward. Indonesia’s reaction to what's occurred cannot be casually dismissed and this is our biggest threat. Knowing what someone said on the phone is less important than keeping friends. Intelligence serves policy, not the other way around. If, through some unfortunate occurrence the details of intelligence collection activities are revealed, the aim must never be to protect the compromised operational methods. That’s what Barack Obama realised when he apologised to Angela Merkel. Surveillance is a tool, not an end in itself. Jettison phone-taps immediately. The overweening requirement is to ensure good relations and re-establish friendship with Jakarta. Both sides of politics have now (encouragingly, although belatedly) recognised this. All other considerations must be pushed out of the way of national interest. This should be our only focus.

Implicit in this are a number of factors. Australia possesses remarkably sophisticated technical collection abilities in Southeast Asia, but these are simply one an ends to a means. In order to make sense of all that data the vital ability will always be isolating the critical conversation and interpreting it. That requires a deeper knowledge.

The publication of the phone tapping details has also revealed a far more troubling issue at the centre of our polity. Tony Abbott's office includes one particularly headstrong individual; his chief-of-staff. Peta Credlin's tight control and ruthless ability to cut through ensured Abbott became Prime Minister. But she’s shown no desire or ability to relinquish her tight grasp since walking into the PM's suite. This is a problem.

Government, good government, requires more than a single ideological approach to issues. Credlin is doing her best to filter information because she wants to ensure Abbott is primed to make the “correct" decisions. She has unique skills but now the time has come for someone different. She’s played a big role moving previous ministerial staffers on. Now it’s time for her to go too.

What crippled Kevin Rudd was his belief that there’s a single right answer to every problem. Not in government there isn't. There are only better and worse responses and even these will change over time.

It's ironic that someone so utterly different to Rudd as Abbott is now at risk of replicating the methods that resulted in the former PM’s dismissal. Mark Textor’s a brilliant pollster – but that’s where his intellectual abilities end. Abbott needs to be careful not to surround himself with those who think they know best and are consumed by hubris.

Tapping your partner’s telephone, or using an app to check the location of their phone may prove he or she’s unfaithful. But then what? Even the best information can only feed into the decision-making. Nobody wants to be the cleverest nerd sitting in the corner, even if they do actually know everything about everybody else. It’s more important to be out there engaging and understanding the way other people think. Just achieve this and then it will be possible to influence the way they react and change your environment.

The strongest relationships are built on trust. Knowledge follows. Don’t confuse even the most detailed, blow-by-blow account of what’s happening for an understanding of what’s really going on. This occurs in the mind. And, as the very best intelligence analysts understand, no number of phone taps can ever reveal what’s going on behind someone’s eyes.

1 comment:

  1. At this early point in time, the Abbott Government is not handling issues particularly well including the legacy issues from the previous Rudd/Gillard Government. The stoush with Indonesia has become unneccesarily messy on a matter where it does not need to be. Picking up the phone to talk to SBY would have been a better response than simply making a statement to Parliament.