Engrossed by their own ability to gain information, it appears as if there's been the occasional slip-up in remembering why our spies are attempting to spy in the first place as this column in today's Canberra Times suggests . . .
TIME & TIDE
Seventeen years ago this month, Prime Minister Paul Keating was beaming. He’d just emerged from the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, where he’d signed a security agreement with Indonesia’s President Suharto. As far as the Australian PM was concerned he’d manufactured (yet another) trump card that he’d use in the coming election to demonstrate how he – and only he – would be able to engage with Asia.
In the RAAF plane on the way home discussion turned to how John Howard had been comprehensively outmanoeuvred. There was no doubt in the minds of Keating’s entourage that their leader and commander had, once again, seized the initiative from the coalition.
That weekend Labor’s Kim Beazley was on a trip through WA. He’d spent the day in Kalgoorlie but flew into Port Headland that night, so he could speak to workers at the local club. Although it was evening it was still hot and humid, so Beazley asked his Senior Advisor, John O’Callaghan, to wander over and grab him a glass of water from the bar.
As he handed over the drink the barman leant over and muttered a short, simple question. “What are you doing, signing a security treaty with those people?” The tone of voice indicated there was no room for negotiation; no possibility of ever convincing him that the treaty was actually a good idea or would lead to new engagement with the region so diverse and full of opportunity. O’Callaghan mulled the question over in his mind as he walked back to the Deputy PM, before deciding to offer his own bit of advice. “Probably best not to mention the security treaty”, he quietly suggested. And so Beazley didn’t.
Now the point of this story isn’t to suggest that better relations with Indonesia aren’t vital – they are. The issue is rather that Australia (just like Indonesia) is a big country. The dynamics that structure political debate in Canberra aren’t necessarily the same as the ones that dominate discussion on the North West Shelf, and it’s worth considering this as we attempt to grapple with the current revelations about Australia’s spying activities.
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop’s been hard at work in Jakarta this week as she attempts to restore the relationship with Indonesia. Perhaps it might have been a good idea to pop by East Timor and attempt to mend a few fences there on her way back. Take a cursory glance at the headlines of the last couple of weeks and it’s difficult not to conclude that our spying has actually set Australia’s interests back, rather than providing us with more information about the region. The difficulty with this quick, comfortable analysis though is that it lacks any context or historical perspective: in fact, it’s just as ignorant as that of the bartender all those years ago. It lacks nuance.
Stories work much better in black and white. Shades of grey are troubling; these issues require thinking about and there aren’t necessarily straightforward answers. That’s the trouble with intelligence. Ever since we sat with our first group of friends in the schoolyard we’ve wanted to know what other people are thinking and saying behind our back. This is only natural. The point is, however, how that information is acquired and the use to which it’s put.
Every country attempts to gain as much knowledge as it can. It wasn’t long ago, for example, that Indonesia’s military attaché here was a senior intelligence officer who ended his career as a two-star general. Given the close alignment of our strategic interests it was probably a very good thing that he gained a better knowledge of Australia – but try explaining that to the bartender at Port Headland. It would probably be equally difficult to convince a welder working on a high-rise apartment complex in Java that bugging his President’s wife’s phone actually did provide significant nuggets of actionable intelligence for Australia (although I certainly don’t know if this was, or wasn’t the case).
The critical rule is to be able to justify the activity if it’s later discovered – and spy agencies should always, always, assume this will happen. This failure was much more than a miscalculation: it was a blunder of massive proportions.
A second, far more serious issue is the confusion that’s arisen about the direction of our intelligence operations. Much can be justified in the name of national security. What is, however, outrageous is the still unproven assertion that the activities of agencies were directed to providing intelligence on commercial negotiations.
Some countries – and France is continually mentioned in this regard – have, in the past been criticised for harnessing intelligence resources (in other words, spying) to support business interests. Fair bargaining implicitly requires withholding information to achieve the best possible outcome. If either side suspects the other of cheating trust quickly breaks down and the long-term consequences are terrible.
It’s too outrageous to even begin to think about what might then happen if unscrupulous individuals should then use that knowledge for their own personal enrichment. I trust none of our former Foreign Ministers would act inappropriately . . .