In Washington DC there’s a remarkable standoff between the world’s most powerful intelligence organisation, the CIA, and the body dedicated to its oversight, the Senate Intelligence Committee. According to its chair, Democratic veteran Dianne Feinstein, the committee has been spied on and harassed by the CIA, claims rejected by Barack Obama’s handpicked CIA chief John Brennan.

That Feinstein has been a stalwart defender of the National Security Agency over the last nine months makes the clash all the more remarkable.

In Anglophone countries, there’s a trade-off when it comes to intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The officials who staff those bodies are not subject to the same scrutiny as other bureaucrats in how they spend money or implement policy. Instead, they are overseen by parliamentary bodies that can operate out of the public gaze, to preserve operational secrecy. Bodies like Feinstein’s committee in the US and its House counterpart, Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s Intelligence and Security Committee in the UK and our own Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security play a key role in balancing the need for secrecy on national security matters (how much secrecy is a different debate) and the need for accountability. Without accountability, any agency is more likely to act incompetently, corruptly or beyond its powers. And in the case of intelligence agencies, those powers are already very great.

After the election, and for reasons not wholly its own fault, the Abbott government took its time re-establishing the JCIS. Eventually, Liberal backbencher Dan Tehan, a former diplomat, was appointed chair in December. Since then the committee has been silent, issuing only two pro forma reviews, despite regular revelations about the behaviour of our intelligence services. Why has there been no investigation of Australia’s bugging of the East Timorese cabinet and the raid last year by ASIO?

Why has there been no investigation of commercial espionage on Indonesia by the Australian Signals Directorate, which was used for the benefit of US firms? Why has there been not a single word about the revelations of mass surveillance by the NSA, in cooperation with our own intelligence agencies?

The trade-off of accountability and secrecy that underpins JCIS, the ISC and congressional committees is that those committees do their jobs and address issues of concern about intelligence agencies. The JCIS in this parliamentary term has manifestly failed to do its job.

Peter Fray

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