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Crikey Says

Mar 12, 2014

Crikey says: we have questions for our intelligence agencies

Andrew Wilkie's bombshell: the secret offer from Julia Gillard. The verdict is in -- there's no widespread bias at the ABC. Plus Paddy Manning on the potential media feeding frenzy after regulatory change. Bernard Keane on penalty rates and the hospitality industry. Guy Rundle meets some Boston revolutionaries. Inside the reignited Tassie forest wars. And on the streets of Russian-speaking Odessa.

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.

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3 thoughts on “Crikey says: we have questions for our intelligence agencies

  1. klewso

    Why (no such investigations into such lingering odours)? Because they’re toys reserved for the major parties to play with?

  2. Ian

    Are there any Greens or independents on the oversight committee? If not it is only window dressing.

  3. AR

    Let the Independent NOT be Wilkie – as an ONAnist he would be as likely to call spooks to account as EricA.
    His whiney ‘bombshell’ (btw, who writes Crikey’s headers – a mudorc reject?)today shredded any last hope I had that he could rise above his past uniformophilia.
    Let it also not be forgotten that during his “support” for the Gillard government, he advocated a return to the Rodent era policies of sabotaging boats in Indonesia to prevent them setting.
    Can he not even spell “casus belli“?