I strongly urge you, Prime Minister, to appoint an impartial, open and wide-ranging Royal Commission into Intelligence... to do otherwise would merely cultivate an artificial scab over the putrefaction beneath.
- Letter to PM Howard by Lieutenant-Colhaonel Lance Collins, The Bulletin, 20 April 2004.
The intense debate over the value of output from Australia's intelligence community, now escalated by the revelation that a top Army intelligence analyst, Lt-Col Lance Collins, wrote to the Prime Minister in the language quoted here, is crucial to Australia's continued security and should not be a political football.
The revelation that an officer of this standing has such fundamental concerns about the integrity of our intelligence assessment output is a flashing red light and alarm bell.
Coming on top of what is already known from the resignation of Mr Andrew Wilkie over use (or abuse) of intelligence to support the invasion of Iraq, and what is widely and credibly suspected about the whole Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" farce, it tells us that the costly sophistication and scope of Australia's internal and external intelligence effort is not proof against human failings.
The list of intelligence failures or issues produced by Lt-Col Collins (in addition to the Iraqi mistake, which helped cause a war) is almost terrifying. Delay in the Brigitte case, the Bali bombing, the collapse of the Solomons as a viable state (we have had to undertake expensive intervention there to clean up the resultant mess), the death by apparent suicide of an Australian officer in Washington who allegedly told the Americans too much, resumption of Indian nuclear testing, the Sandline fiasco in PNG, the fact that the Supreme Truth sect tested their sarin weapon in Australia before using it on the Tokyo underground in 1995, the collapse of the Suharto regime in Indonesia and East Timorese independence. This list is nearly ten years long.
Equally weighty is one of the conclusions reached by Captain Martin Toohey, RAN, a noted barrister, who - as part of the normal Defence Force Redress of Grievances procedures - was charged with assessing grievances lodged by Lt-Col Collins. I do not mean to minimise the importance of his total package of findings (especially to Lt-Col Collins), but that there is a "pro-Jakarta lobby" inside the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) is, given Capt Toohey's qualifications and background, so extraordinary as to be immediately credible. No-one in his position would put such a thing in writing unless he believed it to be true.
Toohey's report, be it noted, was then reviewed (pdf, 707KB) - again, as part of the normal Defence Force procedures - by a Lt-Col R.A. Brown of HQ Army Training Command. He found no formal defects in the report and that it was relevant to the Terms of Reference.
The fact that a later report (pdf, 1.1MB), specially commissioned outside the normal Defence process, claimed to have found formal defects in Toohey's report is actually irrelevant. What is important here is that Lt-Col Collins, in his position, makes the points he does, that Capt Toohey, in his, endorses them almost completely, and that Lt-Col Brown does likewise. In short, everyone who has a place in the established process is convinced of the truth of most of what Lt-Col Collins said. Whether some technicality invalidates any part of any of these documents in a legalistic sense does not detract at all from the findings of fact that the various participants made. They acted, all of them, in good faith. Their findings must be taken as those of people of good faith. And this means we have a deadly serious problem.
This problem is not as simple as some may believe. It is not so much a case of censorship: it will rarely happen that a government tries to force an intelligence agency to produce "assessments" designed to support some political objective or priority. The issue is more one of self-censorship, and only in the upper echelons. Hence the frustrations of intelligence professionals like Mr Wilkie and Lt-Col Collins.
It is only natural that politicians will seize on advice which supports their inclinations or objectives, and dislike that which does not. Of course really capable ministers actually welcome contrary advice and warnings which, if taken on board, arm them against later disasters. But the more short-sighted of the species see only their ideological or other priorities being frustrated by inconvenient facts, which they would prefer not to know.
Hence agency managements may tell governments what governments want to hear, and de-emphasise material tending to the contrary. They may give priority to gathering or collating some kinds of intelligence, supportive of a desired political posture, and deny resources to those which might undermine it. They may seek to frustrate or even victimise officers who will not go along with this. But, censorship or self-censorship, the outcome is the same: flawed assessments and advice go to the government. Thus the appalling list produced by Lt-Col Collins.
The "pro-Jakarta lobby" concept can be taken too far. There is nothing even semi-organised along these lines. But there are - in the intelligence community, the Defence and Foreign Affairs Departments - important people who place priority on good relations with whoever is in power in Jakarta, whatever the costs elsewhere. People of this mind were the architects of the long sad years wasted appeasing Suharto, of the blind eye to his brutality and corruption, of formally recognising Jakarta's rape of East Timor.