NSW Premier Mike Baird and Prime Minister Tony Abbott at yesterday’s joint press conference

An inquiry is now underway into whether a significant intelligence failure may have led to Sydney criminal Man Monis being able to obtain a weapon and initiate Monday’s siege without any monitoring by the federal police and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister, in response to a question about why Monis was allowed to roam the streets despite being well-known to authorities, flagged his concerns with how he was not on a counter-terrorism watchlist, saying: “If I can be candid with you, that is the question that we were asking ourselves around the National Security Committee of the Cabinet today — how can someone who has had such a long and chequered history not be on the appropriate watch lists, and how can someone like that be entirely at large in the community?”

Abbott went further this morning, committing to an inquiry into what happened and to a public report. “We want to know why he wasn’t being monitored, given his history of violence, his history of mental instability, and his history of infatuation with extremism,” Abbott said. “The system did not adequately deal with this individual.”

That the Prime Minister is publicly wondering why security agencies failed to do their job is a remarkable rebuke for agencies that this government has unthinkingly supported, including with the provision of a staggering $630 million in additional funding this year alone and virtual carte blanche on whatever expansions to their powers they have demanded.

It comes as the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security commences its hearings into the government’s data retention proposal this morning. The committee deputy chair, Labor’s Anthony Byrne, told Crikey this morning that, without having been briefed by agencies, he had “deep concerns about what appears to be an intelligence failure” in relation to Monis.

These are agencies that have a suite of draconian powers already, including preventive detention and control order powers. Monis was well known as the author of offensive letters to the families of Australians killed in Afghanistan, had an online presence providing an insight into his bizarre, and constantly changing, beliefs, and had been charged not merely with involvement in the murder of his ex-wife but dozens of sex offences.

One serious question must be whether the nature of Monis’ offences in effect took him off the radar — that violence against women did not register with security bureaucrats and counter-terrorism AFP officers as predisposing Monis to “real” violence of the kind they focus on. If Monis was “just” an accused rapist involved with the murder of his former partner, did that blind agencies to his potential threat? Or did his Shia background discourage them from viewing him as the sort of figure likely to sympathise with Islamic State, which before anything else is primarily in the business of murdering Shiites?

The inquiry will come at a time when some within the intelligence community are wondering about whether ASIO head Duncan Lewis has the expertise to oversee the agency at a time of heightened security fears. Lewis — who has declined Crikey’s requests for interview — has an outstanding military record, and became Kevin Rudd’s national security adviser in 2008. He was appointed secretary of Defence in 2011 but then, as has been the fate of some predecessors, moved out and given a diplomatic posting, barely a year later. Secretary of Defence is probably the most difficult public service position, not merely because of the vast nature of the department and its activities, but because of the “diarchy” structure that governs it. That Lewis struggled to run Defence is no discredit to him — better public servants than he have tried and failed. However, it does point up his lack of executive experience running large organisations — ASIO, where he commenced in December, has around 1800 people and a budget of over $400 million.

As a consequence, many are wondering whether Lewis is the best person to lead ASIO at this point. The issue of Monis’ absence from any agency observation predates Lewis’ time, but it will only reinforce questions about whether Lewis is the right person for the job.

An inquiry into the Monis failure, preferably an independent inquiry, is absolutely critical to preserving both public and political confidence in our agencies, particularly at the point where they are demanding mass surveillance powers to keep the entire population under observation.

But far from accepting that the possible failure of ASIO and the AFP in relation to Monis begs the question of why they should be given additional powers the Prime Minister yesterday tried to connect them, explicitly linking the siege in Sydney with the need for “metadata detention”. For a leader who had until then responded to the tragedy responsibly and appropriately, it was an egregious mistake. The debate over data retention is already soiled enough by the blatant misrepresentations of ministers, security agencies and their apparatchiks at the Attorney-General’s Department. To use a tragedy to justify government policy is a grubby new low.