The head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service is facing “please explain” calls after he was photographed with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte making Duterte’s signature fist gesture.

ASIS is Australia’s foreign intelligence service, and ASIS head Nick Warner made what was termed a “courtesy call” on Duterte in Manila. Australia is providing military assistance to the Philippine government in its fight to oust jihadists from the city of Marawi on Mindanao, despite Foreign Minister Julie Bishop frequently expressing human rights concerns about the Duterte government’s open contempt for the rule of law.

The picture, sourced from Philippines media, which appeared on the ABC and The Australian websites yesterday, shows Warner standing next to Duterte and copying the latter’s fist gesture, a trademark of the strongman, who was elected in 2016. The photo is understood to have caused consternation in intelligence circles, especially given Warner, as is expected of the ASIS head, keeps a low public profile.

Labor’s Anthony Byrne, the experienced deputy chair, and former chair, of the parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, expressed shock at the photo on Twitter. “Completely inappropriate photo for the head of one our most important intelligent services to be in,” said Byrne.

The misjudgment is unlikely to please the government, which has been trying to walk a fine line between supporting Duterte’s battle against Islamic State-influenced jihadists in the bloody effort to retake Marawi and maintaining the pressure on Duterte over his “drug war”,  which has claimed the lives of up to 7000 people killed by police and vigilantes in a bloody, and often due process-free, crackdown on crime.

Warner is understood to be angling for the new role of Director-General of National Intelligence, which will function as Australia’s intelligence supremo and head of a new Office of National Intelligence. The ONI, recommended by the recent L’Estrange-Merchant intelligence review, would work directly to the Prime Minister and operate separately from the new home affairs portfolio.

Peter Fray

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