(Image: Getty)

The government’s failure to provide appropriate support for its own intelligence officers, and its insistence on evading scrutiny over its handling of intelligence matters, is endangering national security, as well as harming the men and women who serve our country in secret, dangerous work.

Much of the coverage of what is becoming known, rightly or not, as the “Witness J” matter has centred on a “secret trial” of the former military intelligence official and the government’s ongoing insistence on keeping details of the man’s case secret following his release from prison.

Whether the proceedings that saw the man imprisoned amounted to a secret trial is not clear, given there are claims the man consented to a suppression order (claims he denies).

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What is clear is that the man was guilty of a serious breach of national security when he used an unsecure email system to complain internally about his treatment and issues around an assessment for the continuation of his security clearance. The information he communicated in that email contained identifying information that, if obtained by other parties, could have compromised national security and placed the lives of officers at risk.

The man subsequently pleaded guilty and served his time. He is now free, but stymied in trying to find employment because he is heavily restricted in what he can say about his recent life, and his previous employment.

He also argues that his employer failed to provide appropriate support for him despite his developing a mental health problem — one that he says led to his misjudgment in breaching security protocols, and which he says he warned his employer repeatedly about.

If there’s any truth to his claim, it suggests that agencies’ failure to provide appropriate support for its intelligence officers can lead to potentially significant national security damage — not to mention damaged staff.

Intelligence work is, plainly, a high-pressure, high-stakes work environment, even for officers not working outside Australia. But everyone has a right to expect their employers will keep them as safe as possible and provide support if they become unwell. Witness J’s case suggests that expectation isn’t being met by at least one intelligence agency.

Compare the case of Witness K. That has nothing to do with mental health, but everything to do with a failure of workplace conditions and support. While mistakenly described as a whistleblower, in fact K’s case began as, in effect, an unfair dismissal case against ASIS — but a case in which K had few or no options for redress.

He eventually turned to then-inspector-general of intelligence and security, Ian Carnell, who advised him that he could seek redress in a legal forum, and a lawyer approved by security agencies, Bernard Collaery. Despite following Carnell’s advice, K found himself prosecuted — and subsequent inspectors-general have refused to back up Carnell’s advice to him.

Instead of improving support for officers in intelligence workplaces — seemingly crucial from a national security perspective — the government has instead increased the pressure on its officials.

In a hysterical response to Edward Snowden’s revelations of illegal conduct by US intelligence agencies and their Five Eyes counterparts, the Abbott government began talking about “insider threats” and hastily introduced draconian laws increasing the penalties for unauthorised disclosures by intelligence officials to 10 years’ jail and lowering the threshold for criminal conduct so that mere possession or handling of secret information — as opposed to distribution — could be prosecuted.

And there remains no effective outlet for intelligence officials to reveal crime or misconduct within their agencies: the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, the only external body to which they can report corruption, is hand-picked by the government, badly under-resourced, operates in secret, and as the Witness K scandal demonstrates, can’t be relied on to properly back officials.

Nor is there any genuine independent oversight of intelligence agencies by parliament, given the ongoing refusal of the Coalition to consider giving parliament’s intelligence committee either the power to initiate its own inquiries or to oversee operational matters.

By increasing, rather than decreasing, the workplace pressure on intelligence officials and providing no outlet for workplace grievances, the government is locking in the conditions that lead to frustrated officials or former officials speaking out.

Regardless of the circumstances of “Witness J”, there may be many more letters of the alphabet to go.

Is the government abandoning its intelligence professionals? Send your thoughts to [email protected]. Please include your full name if you would like to be considered for publication.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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