In December 2010, the government engaged Associate Professor Rufus Black and Robert Cornall to review the ''Australian intelligence community''.
Black is the master of Ormond College at the University of Melbourne and is described on a website as a ''thought leader, ethicist and public policy expert''. Cornall is a former secretary of the Attorney-General's Department and, as it has some responsibility for intelligence matters, Cornall was, in the best traditions of modern governance, put in the position of examining the worth of some of his own handiwork.
The review was asked to report by ''around the middle of 2011''. It did so around the end of the year and a version of the review's report, apparently sanitised by its authors to be fit for public consumption, was issued by Prime Minister Julia Gillard on January 25, 2012.
A pre-eminent defence and intelligence analyst, Professor Hugh White, says the public overview report ''mostly reads like a government PR brochure'' and that if the classified version ''is as superficial as the overview makes it appear, the government has wasted its money in commissioning it''. Though White is a tough and fair-minded chap, his assessment may be on the generous side.
The Australian intelligence community is generally taken to comprise the Office of National Assessments, ASIO, ASIS, the Defence Signals Directorate, the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation, and the Defence Intelligence Organisation. These organisations were the principal focus of the Black-Cornall report.
The report contains:
■ Five pages on the definition of intelligence and what can be expected of it.
■ Three-and-a-half pages describing the functions of Australia's intelligence organisations.
■ Eight pages on the performance and ''preparedness'' of the intelligence community.
■ Sixteen pages of material relegated to appendices.
The best that can be said of the report is that it is well written. Apart from that, it contains little useful factual information, its generalised assertions are untainted by significant analysis and it lacks any of the recommendations Black and Cornall have made to the government: all of that is far too sensitive, thank you very much.
A journalist for The Age newspaper, Daniel Flitton, said Black had brought ''a wizardly wisdom to the shadowy world of state secrecy''. There's no evidence that either he or Cornall have done any such thing.
There are numerous nits that can be picked in the report. Just take a couple:
■ Intelligence is defined as: ''Information that enables you to protect your interests or to maintain a valuable advantage in advancing your interests over those posing threats to them.'' That is, intelligence-gathering should be threat-based. That is too narrow a definition for intelligence, which should cover such things as developments in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia that may well be more beneficial to Australia than threatening.
■ It's claimed: ''Intelligence has to be clearly linked to the needs of individual customers and tailored for the purposes to which they can apply it.'' That sounds rather like the operating principle of the CIA under then director George Tenet, when it advised president George W. Bush about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq being a ''slam-dunk case''. It's worth noting, though, that for his efforts Tenet was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004; an honour he shares with Martin Luther King and our own John Howard.
More worrying, however, are the overall Black-Cornall conclusions. In their view, everything is fine: the vastly increased expenditure on intelligence agencies ''has been justified'', the ''agencies are working well together'' and the balance between civil liberties and security and intelligence operations ''is sound and does not need any adjustment at present''. There is no need to worry about a thing. All is as sweet as a nut.
In short, Black and Cornall have given the government and the intelligence community what they may have wished for: a complete whitewash.
Between 2000 and 2010, the combined budgets of Australia's intelligence agencies increased from $317 million to $1070 million. In roughly the same period, the number of staff in ASIO tripled from about 600 to about 1900, requiring the construction of a new building inappropriately located on Lake Burley Griffin's shores, an architectural monstrosity more hideous than Moscow's Lubyanka, the KGB's former headquarters.
Black and Cornall justify this vastly increased spending on intelligence agencies by listing what they call ''many notable outcomes'', including a couple of convictions a year against ''terrorist'' plotters, support for military operations, disrupting people-smuggling, countering cyberthreats and the like. However, as the supremely wise Frenchman Michel de Montaigne cautioned in the 16th century, ''plans must not be judged by results'' and ''outcomes provide meagre testimony of our worth and ability''.
Black and Cornall's assertions would have been more believable, and they would have served the government and the public better, if they had taken the trouble to assess spending on intelligence agencies against security risks, which are typically grossly inflated and distorted, especially by politicians. In 2007, then defence minister Brendan Nelson said: ''Today, we have something which is no less a risk to our culture, our values and our way of life than was presented to us in 1942 … [today's dangers are] no less a threat than fascism or communism in the past.'' That is utter rubbish, but such sentiments inevitably affect the propensity of governments to spend on security and intelligence. They've got to put their money where their mouths are.
A foolish boosterism is also in evidence in the Black-Cornall report, which refers to ''the growing security challenges of the 9/11 decade''. What? The ''9/11'' decade? It's preposterous and distorting to use the shocking attacks on Manhattan's twin towers and the Pentagon to characterise 10 years of security history. This is not ''wizardly wisdom''; it's world-class folly.
In this year's March-April edition of the American journal Foreign Affairs, Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen write of the US: ''Within the foreign policy elite, there exists a pervasive belief that the post-Cold War world is a treacherous place, full of great uncertainty and grave risks.'' They say about this belief, however, that: ''There is just one problem. It is simply wrong. The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history.''
Zenko and Cohen go on to point out that:
■ ''Hyping dangers'' has been used to justify ''massive budgets for military and intelligence agencies''.
■ ''Much of the fear that suffuses US foreign policy stems from the trauma of 9/11'' and that the ''level of that fear is completely out of proportion to both the capabilities of terrorist organisations and the United States' vulnerability''.
■ ''Of the 13,186 people killed by terrorist attacks in 2010, only 15 … were US citizens.''
■ While China's rise ''will pose a challenge to US economic interests … the present security threat to the US mainland is practically non-existent'' and that, in 2012, ''the Pentagon will spend roughly as much on military research and development alone as China will spend on its entire military''.
■ Although ''a nuclear Iran would be troubling to the region, the United States and its allies would be able to contain Tehran and deter its aggression''.
■ In Pakistan, ''the chances of a terrorist organisation procuring a nuclear weapon are infinitesimally small'', noting that former defence secretary Robert Gates said in 2010 the US was ''very comfortable with the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons''.
■ Warnings about imminent cyber-Pearl Harbours or 9/11s - described in 2011 as ''existential'' by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen - ''crumble under scrutiny'' and that even though ''Pentagon networks are attacked thousands of times a day … the vast majority of these … fail'', none has ''resulted in the loss of a single US life'' and ''none is even vaguely comparable to Pearl Harbor or 9/11''.
Zenko and Cohen go on to argue that ''the most lamentable cost of unceasing threat exaggeration … is that the main global challenges facing the United States (climate change, global economic instability, pandemic diseases and transnational criminal networks) are poorly resourced''.
That is to say, Zenko and Cohen mount a credible case that, in the past 10 years, security problems faced by the US have become less rather than more dangerous. A similar case could be made in Australia, where, in that time, money spent on intelligence agencies has tripled. It is lamentable that the Black-Cornall report doesn't give any consideration to the possibility that security risk in Australia may be declining, while spending on security agencies continues to increase at a rate almost unprecedented in Australian government organisations in peacetime. Black and Cornall's terms of reference were certainly broad enough to allow such a consideration. Indeed, Black said the exercise was ''truly unconstrained''.
It's difficult for governments and politicians to ease off spending on security agencies. If they do and something nasty happens, then they are, of course, totally to blame. In this context, it is inexcusable that the public Black-Cornall report does not include any analysis of trends in security risks and so give the government, in an open and public way, something on which to base its resourcing decisions in addition to the private pleadings of intelligence agencies. Risk is the main ground upon which sensible judgments can be made about the worth of recent and projected spending on security and intelligence. If risks have decreased, as they may very well have, why has spending increased at a compound annual growth rate of about 15 per cent over the past 10 years?
In 2004, a former secretary of the Foreign Affairs Department, Philip Flood, reviewed and reported on Australia's intelligence agencies. His was a very good report. The highly censored public Black-Cornall report is a woeful document. If the secret version provided to the government is anything like it, no one has been done any favours, and the only thing the Commonwealth will have learned is who not to hire to do the next review of the intelligence community.
Paddy Gourley is a former deputy secretary of the Defence Department.