What value Australia’s intelligence apparatus?

By Warren Reed – posted Wednesday, 23 July 2008

By any measure, our intelligence agencies are the eyes and ears of the nation. But in the lead-up to the violence and killings of 1999 in East Timor it seemed that Canberra’s political masters were like two of the wise monkeys, seeing nothing and hearing nothing. The third monkey, however, had a lot to say, the nature of which bore little resemblance to the truth.

And truth – or at least, the portrayal of reality for what it is rather than what someone else wants it to be – is the essence of intelligence work. This applies as much to the gathering end of the process as to the analytical end. Muck with that and you destroy the raison d’être for an intelligence system. You also destroy the belief that the people who work in that system have in their profession and in its charter to protect and enhance the national interest.

With this in mind, it was interesting to note two things that coincided in mid-July. One was Alexander Downer’s public assessment of his own performance over 11 years as Australia’s Foreign Minister. The other was the release of the report of the joint Indonesian-East Timorese Commission for Truth and Friendship.

The latter report confirmed what we had always known: that the Indonesian authorities, especially the armed forces, or TNI, were behind the atrocities committed by the militias.

President Yudhoyono acknowledged “institutional” responsibility for this and while not apologising, expressed his remorse for the acts of rape, murder and torture visited upon the East Timorese that were brought forth by their independence vote.

But Mr Downer, in rebuffing a Sydney Morning Herald article critical of his years in office, told its readers (Downer, “Bias ignores years of hard work on foreign policy”, SMH, July 11, 2008) that he often cited East Timor as his greatest achievement. He wrote that he had “commissioned the 1998 survey of East Timorese opinion which led to the Howard letter, which was initiated by me and drafted in my department. The intensity of the subsequent diplomacy led, eventually and untidily, to a free and independent East Timor.”

The Foreign Minister, it should be pointed out, is also the minister responsible for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), which is the country’s overseas spy agency. One of the reasons for having the Service is to avoid bringing “untidiness” – hardly the most respectful of euphemisms – into the lives of people around us.

How can Mr Downer’s pride in his accomplishment be reconciled with what actually happened in 1999?

It can’t be.

Three crucial questions arise, each of which the former minister should be obliged to address. They should have been looked at many years ago.

First, did Australia’s intelligence agencies fail to provide the government of the day with a reasonable picture of what was coming in East Timor? If that were so, it would have constituted an exceptional failure of our system, especially vis-à-vis a major neighbour, and would have required a broad-ranging inquiry. No such inquiry has ever been called.

Second, was appropriate intelligence gathered and analysed and then passed on to the Government, but ignored?

And third, was appropriate intelligence available but not passed on to the government in the knowledge that it would be regarded as unpalatable and hence not be acted upon?

Here are some of Mr Downer’s statements on the matter.

In a recent article in The Age (July 12, 2008), he noted that in 1999, “it was widely known that elements of the Indonesian military were behind the violent militia activity in East Timor”.

He added that those elements were defying the orders of Jakarta and suggested it was highly unlikely that then President Habibie sanctioned the violence. Nevertheless, he felt that General Wiranto, the head of the military, was aware of it, though “I suspect he felt powerless to stop it on the grounds that there were significant elements of the TNI that felt bitter and vengeful towards the East Timorese”.

The day before, on July 11, Mr Downer told ABC Radio (see Bruce Haigh’s article, “We need to clarify Timor role”, in On Line Opinion, July 23) that in contrast to the common image of Wiranto as a “big strong man, he didn’t really have the strength within the Indonesian military to close it down”.

Surely, if Mr Downer and his government colleagues believed this, they should have moved quickly to bring in an international peacekeeping force to guard against carnage in East Timor. Instead, this was resisted at every turn, despite the fact that Australian missionaries, aid workers and media reporters were regularly informing us of reality on the ground there.

Along the way, in June 1999, the Australian Government’s failure to pass on to its American allies an accurate picture of the trouble brewing in East Timor aroused US suspicions and resulted in tragedy for one unfortunate Australian caught up in the deception.

Former Army lieutenant-colonel Mervyn Jenkins, a widely respected expert in electronic warfare, was working in the Australian Embassy in Washington where his role was to pass on intelligence to the Americans. In order to protect the long-term relationship with this key ally, he passed on both a true portrayal of reality in Indonesia and East Timor along with the lesser version that Canberra required him to supply. In the intelligence partnership that Australia belongs to, along with the US, the UK and others, lying is considered a cardinal sin. When Canberra discovered what Jenkins was doing he was so badly treated by the Australian Government that he committed suicide on his 48th birthday. Those responsible for this heinous act have never been called to account.

When a government puts spin on intelligence it is telling the agencies that it prefers to tailor its own reality. The message is clear to everyone that those who deliver the goods will be favoured and those who remain loyal to the principles that underpin the profession won’t. In effect, promotion is on the line, if not also your career. There are always those in the intelligence community who will jump at the opportunity to further their personal cause.

Sending the message that regime survival is more important than the truth is one of the most callous ways of politicising the machinery of government.

While President Yudhoyono’s acknowledgement of wrongs that were done – genteel and inadequate as it might be – is one small step on Indonesia’s road to democracy, there’s also a salutary warning in it for us. That is that for decent men and women in our intelligence agencies to do their job confidently and securely, watching and listening on our behalf, they need us to bother to stay awake while they’re doing it. If we want to recruit quality people of integrity into the system we need to show them that we care how they’re treated.

Democracy should never be taken for granted.

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