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AFP raids: the risk in taking public trust for granted

By Warren Reed - posted Tuesday, 23 July 2019

A recent Australian Federal Police raid on a News Corp journalist's home in Canberra, where a team reportedly spent seven hours going through her possessions, and another raid on the ABC's headquarters in Sydney, are seen by many Australians as "over the top". This is especially so because there has been no reasonable explanation given as to why such dramatic action was required. That doesn't mean we need to know all the classified details. But when the ABC reveals that the police also sought finger and palm prints of two of its reporters, people have a right to be alarmed.

Most Australians currently working, or who have worked in our country's broader intelligence community, have a marked degree of sympathy for the AFP. They're often obliged to investigate matters that are fundamentally political in nature. It's a thankless task, and one that occasionally attracts undeserved ridicule. This can be damaging for an organisation that in a survey released in September last year was rated the most trusted by Australians. Carried out by Essential Report and named Trust in Institutions, the AFP topped the list at 70%, while the ABC came in at 54%, the Commonwealth Public Service at 39% and Federal Parliament at an abysmal 28%.

But back to the raids: all sorts of classified documents, even Top Secret material, mysteriously find their way into the hands of the media, which in a democracy is generally no bad thing. A free press is absolutely essential to the maintenance of democratic institutions. Leaks go with the territory. Often things fall off the back of a truck – an "unidentifiable" truck – which is when the AFP has to waste valuable time and resources (never abundantly available) trying to track down the source.


Take for example, an article published by Andrew Bolt in Melbourne's Herald Sun on June 23, 2003, following the invasion of Iraq. Bolt quoted directly from a classified, leaked intelligence report that Andrew Wilkie had compiled on that country for the then Office of National Assessments (ONA), which Bolt admitted having seen. The report appeared to have been leaked to call into question Wilkie's credibility. The former Army officer had resigned in March 2003 as an analyst with ONA over Australia's participation in that invasion. Wilkie's report had been written in December 2002 and sent out to a restricted readership. All copies were duly returned, but in June 2003 the Foreign Minister's office requested a copy, the only such request made in the six-month period after its original distribution. Three days later, Bolt's article appeared.

The AFP launched an inquiry and eleven months later reported to the government that there was "no direct admissible evidence to identify any of the recipients of the report as the source of the disclosure to the journalist Andrew Bolt." Case closed. The minister responsible for the AFP claimed that for operational reasons he could not reveal whether all likely leakers had co-operated with the inquiry, or whether all relevant phone records were checked.

The AFP has more important things to do than dealing with matters like this. It can be demeaning for the men and women who work in our intelligence community, which includes ASIO, ASIS (our overseas spy service), the Australian Signals Directorate and often by extension our state police forces. It's that community, working in a sophisticated and integrated way that has saved Australia from a significant number of home-grown terror attacks.

Zoe Samios, writing about the ABC raid in The Australian this week reported that the government had, just last week, faced increased pressure to address press freedom challenges. This followed an appeal by News Corp and the ABC to the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to try to stop police action against the journalists involved. The minister rejected such requests, telling the Nine Network "that nobody is above the law". But there's hardly an experienced journalist in Australia who doesn't know that ministers themselves sometimes leak highly classified material. This confusing mix was made worse when at the end of last week a spokesman for Christian Porter, the Attorney-General, reinforced his boss's position that he "would be seriously disinclined" to prosecute journalists. John Lyons, the head of ABC Investigations and the executive who revealed the request for finger and palm prints, summed it up well a few days ago by observing that there was a "fascinating political game" being played out in Canberra.

Confusion and contradiction like this do nothing to inspire the community's trust, a trust that has played a major role in the success of ASIO and the AFP in thwarting terror attacks. Tip-offs are more important than most people realise. They're often crucial; just one person with enough respect for, and trust in our agencies, can tip the scales. Many of those tip-offs come from migrants who have fled totalitarian regimes to make a new life in Australia. As such, their natural inclination is not to tip off anyone, to stay well away from the authorities. Such people are usually delicately balanced as they sit on the fence and their goodwill can easily be negated when confronted by Minister Dutton's frequently bellicose manner on the nightly TV news. While colleagues inside Dutton's broad-reaching Home Affairs Department regularly see the skills and acuity he has brought from his police background, most citizens have no awareness of this. A persistently "aggro" image puts many people off.

An interesting perspective on this comes from an early eighteenth century British statesman and political writer, Viscount Bolingbroke, who noted that: "Truth lies within a little and certain compass, but error is immense". One humble skerrick of truth conveyed in a tip-off is often the missing link in the chain of understanding that police and intelligence officers already have. They're often searching for a needle in a haystack, then someone with goodwill points to where it is.


Something that most Australians are also unaware of is just how soul-destroying our Canberra system can be, especially when there's infighting in government ranks. But despite this, our protective agencies have, in the main served us well. The last thing any of the specialist men and women who work in them needs is politicians playing silly-buggers. National security should be far more important than that. If political games are driving these recent high profile raids, then that's a national disgrace, and a dangerous one.

There's enough vengeance and spleen in the federal bureaucracy as it is; the last thing we want is politicians making it worse. Ask any whistleblower what this means and they'll tell you. It's often hard to believe.

Take for example, the Allan Kessing case. He was a member of the Customs Air Border Security Unit based at Sydney Airport. He had been instrumental in compiling two reports, in 2003 and 2004, which highlighted major shortcomings in the security net at the country's major airports. This included surveillance blind spots, criminal activity and drug smuggling – and all this, such a short time after the events of 9/11 in the United States.

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About the Author

Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University in the 1970s. He later spent ten years in intelligence and was also chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. He served in Asia, the Middle East and India.

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