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Secrecy, intelligence and accountability

By Bill Calcutt - posted Thursday, 20 August 2009

Governments seek the protection of secrecy when public disclosure threatens to compromise their ongoing national security (and other) interests. The exposure of information sources, collection methods or foresight can negate the advantages afforded by exclusive possession.

However, secrecy can also thwart accountability by shielding justification (as well as mistakes and poor judgment) from public scrutiny. Public accountability is a vital safeguard against the abuse of power by enabling the rigorous scrutiny of justification and the attribution of responsibility.

Because of the clandestine nature and activities of intelligence organisations a great deal of confusion and speculation surrounds their work. Perceptions of intrigue, deception, danger and excitement are reinforced by screen and literary images of spies combating “evil forces”. More than 30 years ago Justice Hope observed that the intelligence function had been unnecessarily shrouded in mystery and that this had impacted on staff recruitment and community support.


More recently, in responding to revelations of a series of highly embarrassing intelligence failures with profound adverse consequences, the former Australian government moved to redefine intelligence in an amorphous, generic and ultimately deceptive way as “covertly obtained information”.

This largely meaningless “intelligence for dummies” definition appears intended to exploit and perpetuate the community’s ignorance about intelligence matters. Under this definition virtually all information becomes intelligence simply by being collected secretly. In reality information collection is the first stage in a complex process that has intelligence production as its goal. Defining intelligence in this simplistic way is like saying that the purpose of brain surgery is to drill a hole in your head.

The “secret collection” definition may serve a number of purposes. It reinforces the association between intelligence and secrecy, subtly enhancing its importance. It masks the real nature of intelligence advice, obviating the need to acknowledge the inherent limitations of all intelligence. And it marks a return to an unsophisticated era where intelligence is used to describe virtually anything secret, and where the label “intelligence” carries more weight than its actual substance or content.

This is not simply a matter of semantics but represents a fundamental obstacle to accountability and the definition of a precise and appropriate role for intelligence in a liberal democracy. The production of intelligence is, to quote Justice Hope “no simple or routine activity but a highly-skilled and subtle task”. In striving to explain intelligence work Justice Hope stressed the central role that analysis plays in transforming raw information into something of real value. He observed that “to simply store and sort [information] does not produce intelligence”.

Intelligence is thus the goal of a rigorous process that starts with the collection of information; moves through careful checking and cross-referencing; to thorough and critical analysis; and leading ultimately to the formulation of balanced judgments and valuable insights on what is probable but not certain.

The simplification of intelligence has had a number of adverse consequences. The first stems from the community’s anxiety about the prospects of further terrorism, largely based on secret intelligence advice. An apprehensive community has been prepared to endorse an unprecedented extension of the government’s national security powers, clearly at some cost to human rights.


The community’s capacity to question the basis for government policies and determine whether responses are proportionate is likewise diminished by secrecy and confusion. While there may be some disquiet about expanded security measures the community has had little option but to place its trust in government assurances that its responses to real threats are measured and justified.

Since the start of the “war on terror” community confidence in the intelligence function has been shaken by the disclosure of a series of catastrophic intelligence failures. The human rights cost of what has been subsequently revealed to be unjustified actions is inestimable (for example, invasion of Iraq, extraordinary rendition, coercive interrogation methods, and indefinite incarceration of suspects without trial).

A further potential consequence of a simplistic approach is the compromise of the capacity of our intelligence organisations to provide forewarning of real security threats. If the government is actually confounded by the intelligence process and unsure of its purpose, then its capacity to demand and recognise real intelligence is likely to be diminished. If the government accepts that intelligence really is anything obtained secretly, it may find it difficult to differentiate between real intelligence and a torrent of unassessed information.

As the primary intelligence consumer, it is vital that the government understand what to require from our intelligence organisations, and hold them accountable for the reliability and accuracy of their intelligence advice. Ultimately the efficacy of these organisations is measured by their ability to provide forewarning of real security threats. History has shown that the human rights costs of flawed judgments, intuitive views and alarmist perspectives can be severe.

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This is an edited extract from an essay published in October 2008 in Vol.3 No.1 of the Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism.

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About the Author

Bill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the National Crime Authority from the early 1970s till the mid 1990s.

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