Christian Kerr writes:

Picture this. You’re the prime minister of a trading nation with a major current account deficit problem. You have a wheat export trade worth $3.5 billion a year. The agency in charge of this key commodity is getting up to some pretty funny business in a pretty funny part of the world.

If you, your foreign minister or your minister for trade don’t know anything about it, you’re asleep at the wheel. You have a duty to know about it.

“Iraq was such an important issue and our trade with Iraq was such an important issue, it’s a reasonable assumption that ministers would have an interest in this,” former Office of National Assessments officer Andrew Wilkie told ABC Radio National this morning.

“It is implausible to think that such important matters would not have come to the attention of relevant ministers. If Foreign Minister Downer or Trade Minister Vaile couldn’t show some interest in one of our major agricultural export markets then I don’t know what they would show interest in.”

Welcome back to the semantic and procedural minefield we’ve already explored this week.

Wilkie had more to say on the topic today, too, in the Fairfax press. But it’s important to remember he was at the top of the food chain in ONA – an agency attached to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet that produces reports on international political, strategic and economic matters for the Government.

Crikey’s attention has been drawn to what actually happens on the ground, in intelligence gathering.

If you’re a field agent with ASIS, the body charged with providing foreign intelligence, you’re not going to let anything slip through your fingers. You don’t need to be specifically tasked with collecting information on a specific topic. Put bluntly, you’re going to want to send everything back to cover your ar*e, Crikey is told.

And there’s a wonderful instrument to help you with this. Crikey reader, meet the demi-official letter, or DO.

DOs go from field officers to desk officers. The relationship between these two is one of the most significant and powerful in intelligence.

Desk officers have considerable discretion about what they can do with demi-offical letters – hence their titles. The material they contain can end up going into the system – formally or informally.

And once again we’re chasing something where there may be no paper trail – advice.

Formal intelligence reports are only one way that field officers pass information on to Canberra. There are other strands of correspondence. And then there’s verbal advice – verbal advice that can go all the way up the chain from the field to the prime minister’s office.

The core issue here is not whether reports existed. It’s about whether knowledge existed.

Unless, of course, our people on the ground were specifically tasked with not collecting information on the AWB…

Peter Fray

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