Interesting exchange with Guy Rundle in your edition yesterday. He has a point, you know. I gathered some experience in this area last year and reached the following conclusions:

No one should uncritically rely on the competence and motives of the intelligence agencies in Australia. They make mistakes (enough of them to be embarrassing at times). By its nature, their work is inexact, involving speculation and hypothetical scenarios. Their advice to politicians is rarely clear-cut, involving qualifications about the accuracy of their intelligence material and predictions.

The problem for the politicians is that it is hard to contradict or disagree with their advice. If you say “that sounds most unlikely” and a terrorist incident occurs, you are finished politically. If in doubt (and there is always some doubt about the advice provided) the politicians have no practical alternative but to back the agencies.

The agencies know this, of course, and given the sensitive nature of their work, they can basically say and recommend anything they like without genuine political or public accountability.

In this work environment, the agencies have formed what amounts to a symbiotic relationship with the Howard Government. As cynical as it may sound, Howard knows that terrorism is a vote winner for his side of politics, especially with the benefits of incumbency in Canberra. So he has little interest in standing up to the agencies and their desire for more resources, better jobs and tougher powers. He even sent ASIO chief Dennis Richardson to Washington.

The agencies know that Howard and Ruddock will always agree with them, so they have become de facto law makers, as well as intelligence gatherers and quasi-secret police. And all this happens without the effective scrutiny of the legislature, the media or the public. Welcome to our new Australian democracy.

Hence labels like “conspiracy”, “egg on face” or “faith in the authorities” are not very helpful. They are simplistically thrown around to fill the information vacuum in public commentary and debate on this issue. Generally, Rundle’s point is valid – we need an independent and questioning media (like Crikey) to overcome the severe accountability deficit. You should leave the rest of the coverage – simplistic, hysterical and opportunistic – to News Ltd and co.