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Mission impossible: spying for liars

By Warren Reed - posted Wednesday, 22 March 2006

While many Australians overlook the Federal Government playing fast and loose with the truth, some in intelligence find it a stimulus to betrayal.

When a government repeatedly lies and flaunts the fact that its political survival is more important than the truth -and even more than the national interest - a fundamental compact with the intelligence community is broken.

Thousands of people, mainly in Canberra, have access to classified material, whether they are intelligence gatherers, analysts, policymakers or general readers. Many have regular access to Australia's most closely guarded secrets.


Some of these secrets we generate ourselves, while others come from allies, such as the US and Britain.

Imagine putting your life at risk to gather intelligence, only to be told your report wasn't distributed because "it's not what the government wants to hear". If you were overseas with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, would you bother sending back a report off the Indian Prime Minister's desk briefing him on John Howard's key personality traits and how his ego could be stroked to win concessions for India?

How about another showing how New Delhi had Howard's own secret briefing for the Indian trip, with all Australia's strategies laid out, before Howard left home?

Who would care? In today's heavily politicised Canberra, you'd be classified as some upstart, intent on embarrassing the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and hence the government.

ASIO's record for catching home-grown traitors is abysmal. No Robert Hanssens of FBI notoriety - now in an underground penitentiary in Colorado - for us. If you can't catch 'em, you don't have 'em. Great motto for a security service, but a sad legacy from management for ASIO staff to wear.

Such leads to a parallel world of intelligence that haunts every nation, particularly inventive ones like Australia with lots of vital resources. Some foreign intelligence officers posted here from "friendly" nations are "declared", so we know who they are. But most we don't, especially from countries keen to grab our top research and development results, or Canberra's secret plans for uranium.


That's why we have ASIO. Most countries that catch foreign spies and traitors selling secrets have their security services run by people with good records in intelligence. Not bureaucrats who win the prime minister's favour.

So, what of that compact broken when a government values lies over truth? Most of those with access simply get on with the job, hoping they never fall foul of Canberra's draconian measures for detecting heretics who question what the government is up to.

The worst danger is that a small number of people with access, whether through greed or to pay mortgages and school fees, will be tempted to turn traitor. Sharp intelligence operatives from overseas know the high level of access prime targets have, so there's no shortage of blandishments aimed in their direction. For that number, when a government brazenly portrays lying as a virtue, it's dead easy to decide.

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First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on March 10, 2006.

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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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