September 2005



By Andrew Wilke

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

They have almost lost their war on terror. Whether Osama bin Laden is alive or dead is irrelevant, because his franchises pop up quicker than they can be killed off. Our soldiers are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sydney and elsewhere wait their turn to be bombed. People talk of dozens of terrorists in our midst. The mainstream is so spooked that many people favour the trappings of a police state. If this script was being written in Hollywood, then by now a top spy might have dashed onto the scene and saved the day.

No one can blame the intelligence agencies for failing to do so. Others are responsible for the conception and execution of this global war on terror, or this global struggle against violent extremism, as some in the US are now calling it. It was, though, the intelligence agencies which failed before September 11, 2001, to understand the scope of the threat posed by Muslim extremists. This failure occurred despite an abundance of hints: the bombing of New York’s World Trade Center in 1993; bin Laden’s declarations of jihad against America since 1996; the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; the attack on the USS Cole warship in Yemen in 2000. More attacks were inevitable.

Yet in Australia, the word “terrorism” did not appear on the list of National Foreign Intelligence Assessment Priorities before September 11. The only remotely relevant item in that document was “threats to Australians overseas”, meaning anything from floods to earthquakes to palace coups. This was partly the fault of the Office of National Assessments, whose job it is to advise – or more accurately tell – the government what should be included on the list. But ONA possessed almost no capacity back then to discern the growing terrorist threat. Before September 11 there was only one, sometimes two, transnational analysts in ONA, and they were busy on border security. Global terrorism got little attention. Suggestions that a Transnational Issues Branch be established to focus on non-traditional security threats were not taken seriously.

Also at fault was the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the lead agency on terrorism threats. Its then director-general, Dennis Richardson, could have pushed ONA to take terrorism more seriously. At any time he could, and should, have represented the matter directly to the government. He didn’t. He has since been awarded the Australian ambassador’s job in Washington. In other words, the war on terror was declared in a virtual intelligence vacuum – which, as any military person will tell you, is a recipe for disaster. Now that the mess is made, a frightening disconnect persists between what we need Australia’s intelligence agencies to achieve and what they are capable of.

More worrying than any previous lapses is the fundamental unsuitability of Australia’s intelligence agencies to fighting terrorism. Most of these organisations were built to spy on countries (something they are handy at) not terrorists (something at which they are pretty useless). The Australian Secret Intelligence Service is a competent outfit, useful for collecting on-the-ground intelligence about countries in the region and acting as a postbox for reports from our intelligence partners. Its operatives are good at schmoozing around diplomatic parties looking for disgruntled officials to recruit, or hanging out at rendezvous in the hope of swapping some cash for an envelope of state secrets. They are not well-suited to operating offshore against the small, secretive teams that make up effective terrorist organisations. Merely locating such adversaries on the ground, let alone finding an inside source, is extraordinarily difficult. And the time taken to try – to recruit the right people, to train them, to embed them within a community – requires years of risky work.

Technical intelligence agencies, such as the Defence Signals Directorate and the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation, are not much better. The eavesdropping satellites and hi-tech platforms feeding DSD are capable of sucking up enormous quantities of communications. But this is not much help if they don’t know where to listen. So long as the terrorists have watched enough movies and know to stay off the air and away from the internet, DSD’s systems are useless. The same goes for DIGO. Its systems can peer down on the world and deliver extraordinary snapshots, such as the electro-optical images shown to the world in the United Nations before the invasion of Iraq. But it too needs to know where to look. And even if it does, the equipment is not so sophisticated that it can track down a handful of extremists building a backpack bomb in someone’s kitchen.

The last lines of defence against terrorism are the police forces and domestic intelligence services like ASIO. They have the advantage of years of groundwork, of working on their own turf and among cultural and religious groups with which they are familiar. Even then the obstacles are formidable, because bombing a crowd in a place like Australia is a ludicrously easy thing to do. All that stands between nothing and everything is a bit of publicly available knowledge, a dash of commonsense, some cash from a credit card, a few commercially available materials and a capacity to keep your mouth shut beforehand.

Timothy McVeigh, the clean-cut American who detonated a fertiliser bomb in Oklahoma City in 1995 and killed 168 people, didn’t even have to buy or steal the light truck he used. He rented it. The improved resources and inter-agency co-operation suggested last year by Iraq intelligence inquisitor Philip Flood will go some way to lifting the intelligence community’s performance. But it remains impossible to prevent access to bomb-making ingredients or to know what every crackpot is up to, especially now that the war on terror – as we saw with the London bombings – is encouraging homegrown extremism as well as the imported kind.

Australia’s security services are only as good as the people who work for them. Some insiders still regard the Australian Federal Police and ASIO as second-rate. This was my own assessment two and a bit years ago when I worked closely with both organisations on transnational issues. Recent encounters suggest nothing has changed. When I resigned as a senior analyst at the Office of National Assessments in 2003 and published my book Axis of Deceit, ASIO couldn’t even come up with my mobile phone number – they had to resort to asking a friend for it. (For what purpose I can only speculate, because they never rang.) Theatrical raids on local Muslims, and the recent comic grilling of a Monash University student for consulting books on terrorism as part of his studies, have done nothing to instil confidence.

The apparent politicisation of Australia’s intelligence agencies is also a concern. Peter Varghese, the current head of ONA, was moved from John Howard’s office where he had played a central role in developing the government’s Iraq agenda. Paul O’Sullivan, ASIO’s new director-general, came straight from Howard’s inner circle. Maurie McNarn, head of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, is regarded in defence circles as someone who can be counted on to do the right thing by his superiors, unlike his predecessor Frank Lewincamp, who troubled the government by deviating from its official line on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Insiders say the vetting of ONA staff has been tightened to prevent any more embarrassing public resignations – like mine – over government policy. Apparently, lateral or progressive thinkers need no longer apply. In May my partner, Kate Burton, was removed from the parliamentary committee overseeing the intelligence agencies. Some on the committee were concerned that her perceived political views would conflict with their needs.

Meanwhile the extraordinary cases of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon have highlighted the shortcomings of the department of immigration at a time when its effectiveness is vital. The department, whose former head Bill Farmer is Australia’s new ambassador in Jakarta, seems incapable of liaising effectively with other organisations in Australia, let alone overseas, or of cross-referencing the information it already possesses to guarantee that undesirables are detected before they get here. An ONA–ASIO assessment has found that terrorists could easily reach Australia undetected –most likely by being unknown to authorities, as with the September 11 hijackers, or by travelling on high-quality, counterfeit travel documents. It is little wonder they are losing their war on terror.

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