Intelligence inquiry has generated more questions than answers

Lieutenant Colonel Lance Collins has been vindicated in his complaints about management interference within the Defence Intelligence Organisation concerning intelligence support to our deployed force in East Timor.

For several decades there have been increasing professional concerns about the adequacy of much of the intelligence support to the defence force by the civilian-led and predominantly civilian-staffed Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO).

This especially applies to Australian forces deployed on operations overseas. 

In the years after the 1999 INTERFET deployment several specific complaints in this regard were raised by Lieutenant Colonel Lance Collins (the initial senior intelligence staff officer at HQINTERFET) with mixed success.

Some of these were eventually referred to the 2004 review of the intelligence services conducted by retired diplomat, Phillip Flood.

Other, more specialist, complaints were to be addressed by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), previously Bill Blick, now Ian Carnell. 

One of the specific complaints related to the closing down for over 24 hours of a key classified communications circuit between HQINTERFET and DIO, about two months after the force’s initial deployment to Dili in September 1999.

At the time, the Commander INTERFET, then Major General Peter Cosgrove, and his staff were advised that this was due to a technical malfunction.

After INTERFET communications specialists confirmed that this was probably not the case, most staff in Dili came to believe that the circuit had been shut off by an arbitrary policy decision at DIO. 

While this might seem an arcane matter to general civilian audiences, to military professionals the incident exemplifies how DIO has too often been insufficiently focused on the defence force as its prime customer.

The July 2004 Flood Report recommended DIO adopt measures to refocus itself on supporting the ADF.

It is also worth noting that while the cut in this type of intelligence support was not critical on this particular occasion, it could have been very serious if it had occurred earlier in the INTERFET deployment, or if it ever occurred again on future operations. 

In announcing some results of the latest IGIS inquiry, the Minister for Defence’s media release of 9 December 2004 begs many more questions than it answers in two separate areas. 

First, Mr Carnell's investigation has confirmed that the circuit was deliberately turned off without consultation with HQINTERFET or its commander.

As HQINTERFET was told by DIO that it was a technical problem, this implies that senior DIO officials were less than frank with General Cosgrove and his staff at the time. 

In April 2004 following an investigation by the previous IGIS, and other advice received from Defence staff, the Secretary of the Department of Defence, Ric Smith, and the Chief of Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove, issued a public statement that the circuit had been disabled by a technical malfunction (rather than bureaucratic or personal pique as so many believed). 

Ten questions naturally arise from the Minister's brief statement.

  • Who turned the circuit off?
  • Why did they do it?
  • On whose authority was this actually or nominally done.
  • Why was there no consultation with the deployed force in Dili?
  • Why was there no consultation with senior ADF commanders and staffs in Australia?
  • When did the Director DIO, Frank Lewincamp, learn of this decision?
  • What action did Mr Lewincamp take to rectify the loss of key intelligence support to the deployed force?
  • If the person or persons who deliberately turned the circuit off were DIO staff, what did Mr Lewincamp do to discipline them?
  • Are the CDF and Secretary now satisfied with the integrity and quality of the advice furnished to them in April 2004?
  • Are the CDF and Secretary confident that the security, safety and success of current and future operational deployments by the defence force will not be risked, or otherwise compromised, by similar bureaucratic decision-making, especially when taken without apparent consultation with the relevant ADF commanders? 

The second aspect of the incident, and of Minister Hill’s press release, relates to the uninformed inference that HQINTERFET should not have been hooked up to DIO in such a manner in the first place.

The notion that senior (formation-level) headquarters deployed to command overseas operations should not necessarily have access, through highly classified (but appropriately protected) communications circuits, to intelligence databases back in Australia is simply absurd. 

Such a notion is completely at odds with the modern operational philosophy, integrated intelligence functionality, and security and systems architecture of the whole ADF Distributed Intelligence System as it has been developed since at least 1993 (and of its allied, and interlinked, counterparts). 

The further suggestion that forward-deployed headquarters should not have such intelligence support because the information might become vulnerable to capture or other compromise is even sillier.

It ignores a variety of tried and tested technical, tactical and practical risk-management safeguards that professional military organisations have employed for decades. 

At the time these incidents occurred, and for six years beforehand, DIO was the only defence intelligence agency in a major western country headed by a civilian official.

The Flood Report dwelt at length on the related problems and recommended that DIO employ many more uniformed intelligence specialists, especially in leadership positions. 

Some previous DIO heads have been Service officers.

As with several of the civilian heads, not all of them have been notable successes.

The real overall lesson is that DIO needs to be headed by a through-career intelligence professional, preferably from the ADF, not a civilian managerialist or military generalist.

In January 2005 Major General Maurie McNarn was appointed to head DIO. 

Finally, we hope the relevant ministers have directed that a formal apology be made to Lieutenant colonel Lance Collins for, among other things, the ineffective investigation undertaken by the then IGIS, Mr Bill Blick.

This should include an apology by the Director DIO, Mr Frank Lewincamp, before he is replaced in January 2005.