ASIO boss Paul O’Sullivan wasn’t allowed to say anything
about the AWB in Senate Estimates yesterday. Indeed, as Senator Joe
Ludwig, the manager of Opposition Business in the Senate pointed out in
a media release, not only was O’Sullivan prevented from answering
questions within the Cole Inquiry’s terms of reference, he was also
barred from answering questions on matters outside Cole’s purview.

However, we can tell you all about a steadily growing trend amongst the spooks – the fashion for made-to-order intelligence.

Australia’s intelligence operatives keep their eyes and ears open. They
pick up things like economic intelligence about our wheat markets in
Iraq. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they formally report on AWB
activities and contracts.

The spooks might know from what they
hear around the traps as individuals about what’s going on, but
reporting it formally to Canberra is quite a another thing. The Great
Game works by different rules now.

Welcome to the wonderful
world of bespoke intelligence, tailored lovingly to fit political
needs. Crikey understands that intelligence reporting is being more and
more governed by predetermined lists of priorities.

Not only are
these a useful way for the intelligence services masters to dictate the
kinds of information they want. Even more conveniently, they let the
policymakers order that a blind eye be turned to activities they’d
really rather remain ignorant of – like the AFP and DIMIA people
smuggling disruption activities between 1998-2002 and their terrible
human consequences.

We suggested yesterday that our spooks
should appear before the Cole Inquiry to answer questions not just
about what they formally reported to Canberra, but what they knew – and
maybe said.

Here’s a hypothetical, but a hypothetical that
sources say is entirely feasible: That word went out that the
Government already knew as much as it wanted to know about what the AWB
was doing with the Iraqis (this sort of thing would not be on paper
anywhere, remember, no written reports on the matter would go into the

Sources describe ASIS’s old head Alan Taylor and Kim
Jones, the former ONA boss, as masters of the quiet word in the ear –
the quiet word that would spread down the line. While there would not
be anything in writing going into the system, they indicate ASIS, ONA
and their governing departments and ministers might well know a great
deal informally. ASIS, of course, answers to the Minister for Foreign
Affairs. ONA is responsible to the Prime Minister.

intelligence priorities influence reporting. Our people on the ground
get constant feedback from Canberra on the lines of “We want to know
more about that” or “We’re not really interested in this.” Canberra
shapes what it wants to hear.

It’s quite possible for Australian
representatives on the ground not to know what other agencies are doing
in the same locations. And while anecdotal matters of general interest
may be discussed amongst representatives of the broader Australian
diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement community in particular
locations, unless issues are formally listed as intelligence collection
or diplomatic reporting priorities, they will not be formally reported

It could well be true to say that ASIS or the ONA never
formally reported concerns over the AWB’s alleged activities in Iraq to
their departments or their ministers. This does not necessarily mean,
however, that DFAT, PM&C, Alexander Downer or John Howard did not
know what was happening.

Yesterday, Crikey observed how
exploring this issue involves trekking though a semantic and procedural
minefield. The challenge that opposition and minor party
parliamentarians – and the media – face is to develop a more
sophisticated understanding of how government handles and protects
various different kinds of information.

Process rules in
government. Parliamentarians, media – and legal figures, too – need to
learn how this process operates so they can ask the right questions.

Children Overboard and other similar inquiries Senators have stumbled
because they’ve been unable to frame questions with the precision
needed to elicit useful answers.

Nowadays, all that witnesses
will give is an absolute minimum. They will exploit any cloudiness or
ambiguity in the hope that there will not be a follow up – or a follow
up that uses a form of words that demand a proper answer. All they
really have to avoid is provable direct lies under oath.

we still have faith in a naive assumption – that departmental officials
are just that; disinterested public servants who want to be
forthcoming. That simply isn’t true nowadays. Even when the Government
lets them speak.