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Lessons from Mumbai

By Warren Reed - posted Monday, 1 December 2008

“Mumbai maimed, nation shamed.” That was the lead headline in India’s Mail Today on November 28, which went on to highlight how the country’s intelligence agencies hadn’t a clue of the impending attack, despite spending huge amounts of money on anti-terrorist measures.

Could something similar happen in Australia?

We hope not. But if it does, it will be for reasons that the police can tell you about now. You don’t need to wait for carnage in the streets of Sydney or Melbourne. How so? One experienced Australian officer noted over the weekend how Mumbai’s anti-terror chief, Hermant Karkare, had died in a hail of bullets leading his men against gunmen holed up in the historic Taj Hotel.


“Don’t expect that sort of bravery here,” he quipped. “Our agency chiefs couldn’t survive boot camp, let alone set an example like that.” Therein lies one of our major problems: Australia’s intelligence agencies, unbelievably, are run by bureaucrats with no hands-on experience in intelligence. And for that reason they lack the respect that is crucial to the fight against terror.

Make no mistake, the front line in that battle is the State Police. They’re the ones with their ears closest to the ground. Federal agencies are supposed to supplement that local knowledge and expertise with additional skills and information. Yet State Police deride the men who run those agencies. In private, they mock their quaint 18th century ways. That’s because the chiefs involved customarily have a Foreign Affairs background. Imagine putting Rolf Harris in uniform to lead our 5,000-strong force into East Timor in 1999.

The police know - as do the many decent men and women employed by those agencies - that intelligence work is all about the allocation of limited resources. You rarely if ever have enough qualified people to handle the specialist tasks that arise when least expected. And yet bureaucrats, who wouldn’t know one end of a gun from the other and who have never been subject to the rigid systems of discipline that mark the professions of arms, police and intelligence, end up making the fine judgments required on such occasions.

Bear in mind, not one of them has been dragooned into the job. They have either actively sought the position for reasons of career advancement, or been offered it by political masters who should have known better. How can Australia possibly benefit from such a ridiculous situation?

It can’t. It puts us back behind the starting line, and our allies haven’t failed to notice. The few runs we have on the board in the fight against terror have come from solid co-operative work between officers who trust each other, regardless of which agency they belong to. Overwhelmingly, this has been despite management, rather than because of it.

We should be asking ourselves whether bureaucrats are placed in these jobs because others with relevant experience simply don’t exist? The answer is no. If that were the case it would mean that our intelligence agencies had failed over decades to produce anyone of experience and talent. That would be a national scandal of enormous proportions.


So, who gains from the current arrangement? Obviously the bureaucrats and their political masters do, which suggests that successive governments want the agencies to be politically compliant. You can’t come to any other conclusion. But the last thing Australia needs at the top of an intelligence agency is a political crony. The inherent danger is that the act of protecting national security can quickly become a charade rather than a reality.

How does this affect Australia’s preparedness for terrorist attack?

First, there is enough inter-agency rivalry at the best of times without exacerbating the problem with managerialism at the top. That just makes it easier for people further down in the structure to play one boss off against another.

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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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