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COLLINS CLASS INTELLIGENCE

Paul Monk

            When ‘scandals’ about secret intelligence break, as the Lance Collins affair has, over the past three weeks, it is irritating, as a citizen, to have to rely on claim and counter claim, without having access to the raw data. The obsessive secrecy of the intelligence and policy worlds seems to be the enemy of the public good in such cases. Given the longstanding controversies over intelligence on East Timor in 1998-99, climaxing with the allegations by Lieutenant Colonel Collins, the ideal solution, one might think, would be to declassify both the intelligence product and Collins’s own dissenting memoranda. Then an informed debate about the uses made of our intelligence take would be possible.

            Governments, in general, are too precious about classified information. Far too much is classified that should not be, especially in circumstances such as those regarding East Timor. As a matter of principle, one might argue, if the intelligence analysis was sound, if the policy based on it was sound, if the complex relationship with Indonesia was given due consideration in the making of such policy, there is surely little to fear from the record being made public. If one or more of these was not the case, there is something to fear from its being kept secret. The citizens of this country need to be able to see that our national security is in good hands, not merely to be assured that it is. So the argument might well run.

            Unfortunately, one has only to state this claim to begin to sense where the ideal collides with the real. Suppose the government was to act on such a suggestion and release into the public domain a volume of intelligence summaries and reports about East Timor and the TNI from 1998-99, plus the memoranda reportedly written and circulated within the classified world by Collins at that time. There is a high order of probability that this material would disclose crimes committed by senior TNI officers: their direct complicity in the preparation for and perpetration of destruction and killing in East Timor in 1999. It might also show that Collins was more attuned to these things than some others. What, however, would follow from this?

            At least three things. First, there would be no agreement about what should have been done on the basis of such intelligence. Should Australia have intervened earlier, or pressed for an armed UN presence and the removal of the TNI before the referendum? Would Indonesia have consented to such an arrangement? What if it had refused? Second, there would be consequences for our relationship with Indonesia, not only with regard to serious charges against its military officers, including General Wiranto, who is now an emerging presidential candidate, but with regard to our intelligence surveillance of Indonesia and our diplomatic and security relationship with it. Third, there would be demands for declassification of similar materials to do with Aceh, Irian Jaya and other areas where Indonesian forces have engaged in brutal repression, which would double and treble the pressure on our relationship with Jakarta.

            Nor would the demands for release of material stop with matters Indonesian. Indeed, once Pandora’s Box was opened, there is no limit to the disclosures that might be demanded. Would this be a good thing, or a bad thing? Whatever your intuitive response to this question, you should pause to consider the foreseeable and conceivable consequences of taking such a path. They would not all be either good or bad, but they would be consequences and your decision, in order to be responsible, would have to take them into account. In weighing them up, you would, as it happens, find yourself in precisely the position of policy makers weighing their options on the basis of available intelligence. Short of sheer irresponsibility, there is no way to avoid this challenge - and, once the challenge is accepted, there are no self-evident answers.

            Where, then, does all this leave us, as citizens seeking to form an opinion about the Collins affair? Joining in the chorus demanding a Royal Commission? Why? What could such a Royal Commission be expected to accomplish? It would almost certainly spend tens of millions of dollars - which would accomplish a lot for a few overpaid lawyers - and take many months, before issuing a report highly likely to be bland, hedged about with caveats and denuded of classified material on ‘national security’ grounds. This would be no substantive advance over where we are now; and to demand that classified material be disclosed by a Royal Commission would take us directly back to the dilemma just discussed.

            Lieutenant Colonel Collins has called, nonetheless, for “an impartial, open and wide-ranging Royal Commission into Intelligence” on the grounds that “to do otherwise would merely cultivate an artificial scab over the putrefaction beneath.” Putrefaction is a strong word. He is not claiming merely that an error or two has been made. He is claiming that the system as a whole is deeply dysfunctional. It makes chronic errors, it is highly politicized and it shoots messengers, such as himself, when they bring unwelcome intelligence to the table. Above all, he appears to believe that civilian intelligence chiefs, not policy makers, are the real cause of the problem. This is why he has written to the Prime Minister, while pointing a bone at DIO chief, Frank Lewincamp.

            As far as one can ascertain from the materials in the public domain, including the report by Captain Martin Toohey, published in The Bulletin on 20 April, the assessment of Toohey’s report by Roger Brown QC and the evaluation of it by Richard Tracey QC, Collins is a fearless, take no prisoners kind of officer who, in Toohey’s words, “has a propensity for telling the truth, regardless of government policy.” He plainly feels very strongly that this has been held against him since his work on and in East Timor. Not only that, but when the Toohey report, which strongly supported him, had been completed, he was denied access to it. By Toohey’s account, as published in The Bulletin on 4 May, it is completely contrary to established practice for such reports not to be “released to all those directly interested in it.”

What seems, also, to be the case is that Collins is a headstrong individual given to fixed ideas and passionate opinions, who does not readily subordinate his own views to the collective wisdom of a team. This puts Toohey’s description of him as committed to “telling the truth” in a somewhat different light. For honesty and integrity are vital qualities in his profession, but obstinacy and obsessiveness are highly problematic.  They are qualities of character that will lead to clashes with others, whether or not those others are themselves reasonable people with defensible views on a given subject.

It seems clear, from both the Toohey and Tracey reports, that Collins made a habit of disseminating his dissent from DIO and DFAT assessments via unauthorized emails widely distributed throughout the intelligence system. It is hardly surprising that this would rankle with others, regardless of the merits of his case. Collins has plainly clashed with various people because of his behaviour and the system has, in consequence, gone into damage control. Yet it is odd that he focuses his professional frustration on Lewincamp, with whom he had little to do and under whom DIO has gained a reputation for dispassionate analysis, specifically including the analysis of East Timor in 1999.

Those dissenting from the government’s handling of East Timor in 1999, after all, leaked DIO analyses to show that the government had had ample warning of what would happen when the East Timorese voted for independence. During the controversy over the Iraq war last year, DIO’s analysis was among the most dispassionate and circumspect in the Western world and Lewincamp’s relentless attention to detail was such that he was awarded a Public Service Medal for his labors. It seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that it was Collins’s personality, not his analysis, that led to the clash with Lewincamp and that has led to career difficulties for him since 2000.

None of this is to suggest that either intelligence or policy making have been above reproach, whether on East Timor or other matters. Arguably, we have what might be called Collins class intelligence services, which is to say services which, like the Collins class submarines, are supposed to do a great deal but have various flaws. It is clear that this is the case in the United States, though it is not clear that any of the current inquiries will offer a solution to the problem. Nor is a Royal Commission here likely to find a solution to the flaws in our own system. 

Indeed, given the nature of intelligence work, there cannot be any simple solution, any flawless intelligence system. There will always be uncertainties, errors, policy dilemmas, clashes of personalities, strains due to the gravity of issues being dealt with. Only by taking intelligence seriously and raising its profile as a demanding profession are we likely to do better over time. This will require as much openness as can be arranged, as well as cool-headed emphasis on analytic tradecraft and its relationship with policy-making. Meanwhile, a charitable course of action would be to find Lieutenant Colonel Collins a niche where he can regain his composure, use his abilities and reflect on his experience.