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Our government needs to be more transparent with 'secret' intelligence

By Daniel Flitton - posted Thursday, 13 May 2004

The Prime Minister claims that Australia’s spy agencies are working effectively. Despite allegations from a senior intelligence officer that "critical shortcomings within the Australian system" prevent a full and independent analysis of world events, Howard rejects calls for a Royal Commission to investigate.

“I continue to have full confidence in our intelligence agencies, they do a very good job for Australia,” he says.

Meanwhile, the White House is struggling to explain how a top secret August 2001 briefing to President Bush titled "Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US" failed to alert him to the 11 September terrorist attacks. Administration officials have reluctantly agreed to declassify this document and allow the general public to examine its contents.


If Bush had listened to his loyal Australian ally, especially the sage counsel of one high-ranking politician, this memo might have remained forever secret.

"We, the Government, have vital information which we cannot disclose. It is upon this knowledge that we make our decisions. You, who are merely private citizens, have not access to this information. Any criticism you make of our policy, any controversy about it in which you may indulge, will therefore be uninformed and valueless. If, in spite of your ignorance, you persist in questioning our policy, we can only conclude that you are disloyal."

Has our overwrought Foreign Minister finally snapped? Is John Howard taking a step toward establishing a permanent dictatorship?

No, that particular remark is attributed to one of the government's political ancestors - Harold Thorby, as Defence Minister in 1938. Back then, the Australian elite knew exactly how to deal with obstinate bureaucrats who openly disagreed with government policy and how to silence any public disquiet about the country's strategic direction.

Simply refuse to entertain the discussion.

The spin doctors would never permit such candour from today's political leaders. Even so, the open democratic process is routinely undermined by the very sentiment that Thorby embodied.


Claims about Iraq's imaginary weapons of mass destruction are the obvious example. All three members of the coalition of the most willing now bemoan the failings of their respective spy agencies. The certainty of February 2003 - "The Australian Government knows that Iraq still has chemical and biological weapons and that Iraq wants to develop nuclear weapons" - took six months to dissolve into a shambling set of excuses - "a bonafide judgement based on the assessments that existed at the time".

Can mere private citizens examine the evidence and make their own judgement? No way. This is vital information which cannot be disclosed.

As Lieutenant-Colonel Lance Collins’ letter to the Prime Minister demonstrates, a similar contempt for open scrutiny is evident in earlier foreign policy controversies too - what governments knew before 11 September or the Bali bombings for instance, back during the "children overboard" refugee affair or the Indonesia military-sponsored militia rampages in East Timor.

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About the Author

Daniel Flitton is a Visiting Research Associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and works at the Australian National University, Canberra.

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