We are regularly told that Australia has outstanding intelligence services and an enviable domestic security record. But, in fact, Australia’s intelligence services have long displayed incompetence and misconduct.
The following list of scandals and failures of Australia’s intelligence agencies in the last 30 years illustrates an ongoing problem: the lack of adequate accountability and oversight for security officials with huge resources and wide-ranging powers.
- The last years of the Cold War see extensive penetration of ASIO by the KGB, to the extent that US intelligence services have to curb intelligence-sharing. Up to four Soviet moles shared information from within ASIO, according to a 1994 report; none of the spies appear to have ever been prosecuted.
- Defence Intelligence Organisation officer Mervyn Jenkins, attached to the Washington Embassy, is investigated for passing on “Australia Eyes Only” information to US officials about militia activity in East Timor following its independence referendum — possibly against the wishes of a claque of pro-Indonesian DFAT and Defence officials who want to hide Indonesian involvement from the US. Jenkins took his own life in his Washington home. Later, DFAT notes on the aggressive interrogation to which Jenkins was subjected vanished.
- Lieutenant-Colonel Lance Collins complains that DIO had shut off intelligence to ADF forces in Timor-Leste for an extended period. Collins is later vindicated by several inquiries, though who authorised the cutting of access isn’t revealed. Collins was then subjected to an extended period of harassment by the Howard government.
- Wrongly accused Australian terror suspect Mamdouh Habib is “rendered” from Pakistan to Egypt by the CIA and tortured. The Howard government claims to have no knowledge of his whereabouts, but Defence and ASIO officials later admit they knew he had been arrested and was to be taken to Egypt. Habib claimed an ASIO official was present during his torture. In 2011, the government settled a compensation claim brought by Habib.
- Sydney man Izhar Ul-Haque is abducted by ASIO agents as part of a counter-terrorism raid. In 2007, the prosecution of Ul-Haque collapses spectacularly, and a NSW Supreme Court judge condemns ASIO’s “grossly improper” and criminal behaviour of kidnapping, falsely imprisoning and violating the civil rights of Ul-Haque. The ASIO agents who commit the abduction are never prosecuted.
- The Howard government lies about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and takes Australia to war. Office of National Assessments officer Andrew Wilkie resigns in protest and later reveals intelligence agencies had advised the government that there were no substantial WMD stocks in Iraq, a claim backed up by a subsequent intelligence committee report, and that the US rush to war was driven by domestic politics. Alexander Downer’s office releases a file on Wilkie to far-right blogger Andrew Bolt to smear Wilkie. Then-adviser to Downer Josh Frydenberg continues to deny he leaked the file.
- Alexander Downer asks ASIS, then led by David Irvine, to divert resources from Indonesian counter-terror operations to bug the cabinet rooms of the Timor-Leste in order to secure an advantage in negotiations over Timor Sea resources, to the benefit of Australian company Woodside. Downer and then-DFAT Secretary Ashton Calvert later take positions with Woodside. The bugging is illegal under both Australian and international law. The perpetrators and those who ordered it are never brought to justice.
- In an offer later revealed by Edward Snowden, DSD offers to share “bulk, unselected, unminimised metadata” about Australians with the NSA and its Five Eyes partners.
- DSD attempts to tap the phone of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and those of his wife and inner circle. The clumsy attempt at spying is later revealed by Edward Snowden, causing a major rift in Australia-Indonesia relations.
- Then-foreign affairs minister Bob Carr and then-attorney-general Mark Dreyfus reveal that there are allegations that Australia spied on Timor-Leste, but that Australia conducted its negotiations with the country “in good faith”.
- Confirming that Australia spies in the commercial interests of companies, DSD wiretaps Indonesian trade officials’ discussions with their legal team while negotiating with the US, and pass the information to the US to be used against Indonesia.
- Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery are raided by ASIO — now led by former ASIS head David Irvine — after K legally reveals the bugging of the Timor-Leste cabinet as part of the country’s litigation against Australia. K has his passport taken to prevent him giving evidence in the case.
- In the week before the Lindt cafe siege, ASIO is warned 18 times about Man Haron Monis, who had been the subject of decades-long monitoring, who was a convicted extremist and who was on trial for sexual violence offences. ASIO and police determine he poses no “imminent threat”. Two people die in the siege.
- Under the direction of an Islamic State operative, two Sydney men prepare a bomb to smuggle on board an Etihad airliner out of Sydney, but at the last minute do not go ahead. Australian intelligence services are oblivious to the plan; it is only revealed to them later by Israeli intelligence services.
- The former Trade Union Royal Commission counsel appointed by the Turnbull government as Director of Public Prosecutions launches a prosecution of Witness K and Bernard Collaery. Inexplicably, it is Collaery’s contact with the ABC that is cited in the prosecution, not his earlier contact with News Corp that detailed the bugging.
What does this all mean?
As most of these examples demonstrate, even the serious misconduct, such as breaking Australian law or aiding Australia’s enemies, or major incompetence, rarely results in demonstrated consequences for the perpetrators within intelligence services. The only people who face consequences are those who reveal wrongdoing or embarrass the powerful: Mervyn Jenkins, Lance Collins, Andrew Wilkie, Witness K, Bernard Collaery. They face consequences even when they adhere strictly to internal procedures and the law in relation to their revelations.
Nor is there any public or parliamentary mechanism for holding agencies to account. Parliament’s intelligence committee has few powers in relation to the operations of agencies and no capacity to initiate its own inquiries. A cloak of secrecy enables officials to reject all questions by other committees with a refusal to discuss operational matters.
When an opposition party abandons its proper role and walks in lockstep with the government, all possibility of parliamentary scrutiny is negated, given the limited options for crossbenchers. The secretive office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security provides little public accountability and, in the case of Witness K, collaborated in the government’s treatment of him.
These are the people who have been given — and continue to be given — ever greater powers over Australians, often on the pretext of their own failures, and who are protected from their own failings by secrecy and malicious punishment of patriots who try to hold them to account.