Bob Carr: 'One must not be seduced by spies.'
It costs about 10 bucks to buy a weekly issue of The Economist, and about $1 billion a year to fund the secret operations of Australia’s intelligence agencies. Which source gives better value for money?
This is the fascinating but as yet largely overlooked question to emerge from Bob Carr’s diary of his time as foreign minister. ‘‘Intelligence figures larger in the job than I would have imagined,’’ Carr writes, and describes the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, tucked in its crypt inside Foreign Affairs headquarters, as ‘‘My own little CIA, my own spies’’.
The diary has made for plenty of public sport, thanks to Carr’s eccentric obsessions. But his comments on intelligence - although at times teasing, with scant detail - are substantive and deserve attention.
Remember, the typical government response to any mention of secret operations is a deathly ‘‘no comment’’. But not Carr. He details a conversation with Julia Gillard about an intelligence report on people smuggling in Sri Lanka showing crooked police being frightened straight. He tells of an Office of National Assessments warning that the Taliban are laughing as Western forces withdraw.
And he describes official briefing notes about Argentina’s ‘‘flirtatious’’ president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner - which I’ll happily bet came from the kind of intelligence profile that Peter Costello once famously dropped, revealing Australia’s private view of some Pacific leaders as drunks.
Nothing in the book appears to put any secret sources at risk, even though security types expecting strict control over information will doubtless squirm from the attention.
But for all Carr’s devouring of intelligence reports, he doesn’t seem overly impressed by the shadowy world from whence they emanate. ‘‘One must not be seduced by spies and their agenda,’’ he writes after meeting the CIA chief in Washington. At an earlier meeting, fresh in the job, Carr also spoke with CIA officers on topics ranging across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and China, and came away underwhelmed.
‘‘All this was solid but unexciting. Where were the revelations? Was there anything here one would not pick up from The Economist, let alone [diplomatic] cables? This thought stirred my instinctive scepticism about intelligence. How often do we get to relish the knockout revelation that we can whole-heartedly believe and on which we can base policy, taking our rivals altogether by surprise?’’
Carr is not the first to doubt the value of intelligence, whose reputation is regularly burnished by Hollywood depictions of the all-seeing, all-knowing spies. He approvingly records a conversation with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger who similarly reported having never been much surprised by intelligence reports.
Carr has a point. Open source material - the stuff of newspapers, academic journals or a chat with an expert - is often regarded as less worthy when placed alongside a report stamped ‘‘TOP SECRET’’ in big red letters. Yet the best answers are regularly to be found in plain sight.
He goes further, warning that spying for spying’s sake carries grave risk. Presumedly this is the ‘‘agenda’’ he worries over. He left the job before leaks by Edward Snowden exposed Australian bugs on the phones of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife, upending ties with Indonesia.
But Carr did see hints of trouble with Jakarta over spy operations emerge during his time. ‘‘The pursuit of intelligence of questionable value has got to be weighed,’’ he writes. ‘‘Weighed against the harm if the intelligence gathering is exposed.’’
This is a debate Australia should be having, rather than beating up on the ABC and other reporters for broadcasting the Snowden leaks. Are we happy to be the kind of nation that covertly listens in on other country’s leaders? Is there a genuine advantage?
But on the big picture, comparing intelligence reports with news services, Carr asks the wrong question. Or rather, he wants the wrong answer. A ‘‘surprise’’, as he puts it, is so rare in international politics it will typically catch everyone off guard. That is the nature of surprise.
Intelligence agencies have certainly made spectacular stuff-ups, missing or misreading big events. But so do news reporters, The Economist no exception, with its past warnings about China’s impending fiscal collapse a good example.
There are plenty of competing sources of information, and as Carr scurries across the world in his often sleep-deprived miasma, you can see him gathering new sources of his own. Competition is a good thing, a way to challenge assumptions.
But news agencies will rarely stick with a subject after a sense of crisis moves on. There is always the restless search for the next big story. Government should not work that way. Attention needs to be sustained and often devoted to topics no one else is much watching.
For a country like Australia, a big player in the Pacific islands, the paucity of regional news coverage could never satisfy a minister’s desire for information. Does that mean the spies are best placed to do the job? Or could diplomats be just as effective, cheaper, and less risky?
To my mind, keep both. And the magazine subscription too.
Daniel Flitton is senior correspondent.