Mission Impossible Image Credit: USAAF

Mission Impossible

Spying in the age of Xi and Zoom

Cover of AFA9 SPY VS SPY

This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 9: Spy vs Spy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

As the world shifts, so do intelligence practices. An intelligence analyst at her desk today worrying about the accuracy of COVID-19 data from China, the origins of a persistent cyberattack or the machinations of a terrorist group with undercover cells in half a dozen countries probably doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on how much easier her job would have been thirty years ago. But recent developments in geopolitics and technology, as well as a continuing terrorism threat, have been complicating the lives of Australia’s intelligence community. And these changes have occurred as the nation’s spy agencies have been emerging from the shadows, which carries the risk of any misjudgements or failures being more widely exposed.

The current intelligence era began in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union – the culmination of a battle of intelligence that had lasted forty years. During the Cold War, long careers began and ended with the same adversary and many of the same intelligence challenges in place. In the absence of open conflict between the main protagonists – notwithstanding several proxy wars – states were determined to strengthen their intelligence capabilities, and their efforts to do so helped to reshape the international order. The United States, for instance, set up a global espionage network that leveraged its alliance relationships. The Five Eyes collaboration between the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom established intelligence collection sites around the world and took advantage of geography to split intelligence responsibilities between members.

Then the Berlin Wall came down and, in the wave of liberal democratic triumphalism that followed the Soviet Union’s demise, academics wondered if boredom and ennui would be the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century. In the 1990s, as security issues took a back seat to economics and trade liberalisation, the budgets of intelligence agencies came under strong downward pressure. As well, America’s allies, including Australia, found themselves less central to Washington’s strategic thinking than they had been for decades. The intelligence-sharing relationship continued, but without the cachet it had during the Cold War. For Australia’s intelligence community, boredom was bad for business.

Of course, history didn’t come to an end in 1991. After a brief interlude of relative calm in which the West congratulated itself for a job well done and globalised its economy, the bipolar Cold War gave way to a more diverse geopolitical landscape that generated a range of less predictable threats. The September 11 attacks changed the focus of intelligence agencies drastically. But other, less dramatic changes also had profound consequences. The globalisation of economic activity enabled the rise of China as a major economic and geopolitical player, and hopes that the People’s Republic of China would want to play by the established rules were sadly dashed. Technology also made the world a smaller and more connected place. The internet brought huge benefits, but it also allowed criminals, terrorists and state-backed hackers to reach into governments, economies and polities around the world.

If those challenges weren’t enough, today intelligence agencies find themselves competing in an information marketplace with a diverse array of news and opinion sources – many of which are reporting in real time and on a 24/7 news cycle – for the attention of their government and military customers. While some world leaders continue to place a premium on the covert collection methods and analytic expertise of the intelligence community, others emphatically do not. The CIA learnt that the hard way in early 2019 when the organisation’s chief, Gina Haspel, contradicted what Donald Trump had decided about Iran’s weapon programs and was told – via Twitter – that “Intelligence should go back to school”. In January 2020, it seems that warnings from the intelligence community about the impending COVID-19 pandemic resulted in few immediate policy responses anywhere in the West. Intelligence is always just one of many factors that governments weigh up, and sometimes it is not the most important.

It doesn’t help that the most public intelligence work of the past few decades concerned making a case for Iraq’s continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in the prelude to the 2003 war. Although that war and the disastrous occupation that followed was as much a policy failure as an intelligence one, intelligence organisations were significantly damaged by being seen to have accommodated the wishes of their political masters.

It is difficult to rebuild the public’s trust when intelligence successes tend to remain in the shadows while failures become all too public. And with the wealth of information resources (of variable quality) now available to anyone with an internet connection, the government can no longer merely invoke secret intelligence to justify its actions and expect a sceptical public to accept it.

A homegrown intelligence community

At the height of the Cold War, Australia’s intelligence community had no public visibility. But a growing scepticism caused by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction after the Iraq War, an increase in the budgets and powers of the intelligence agencies as they began to focus on terrorism, and the onset of the digital age have made the public much more likely to question the government’s motives for its security policies. In recent years, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the national signals intelligence agency, the Australian Signals Directorate, have responded by disclosing some of their operational approaches and challenges in public addresses and online, including on social media. Old-school spies would have recoiled. But the agencies are less likely to establish trust and credibility if they maintain an impenetrable veil of secrecy.

The current shape of Australia’s national intelligence community (see chart below) dates back to December 2018, when it was expanded and reorganised after a major review commissioned by the Turnbull government. But it has been a work-in-progress for more than seventy years; today’s agencies originated in World War II, though they took on their current form in the early years of the Cold War. In fact, ASIO came into being partly at the behest of Australia’s allies, who were concerned that we offered a soft way into the West for Soviet intelligence.

The regulation in the first few decades of Australian intelligence was much lighter than today. The agencies were not publicly acknowledged before the 1970s, and they worked under ministerial direction with no significant independent oversight. Perhaps not surprisingly, at times there was some cavalier behaviour. The Whitlam government had serious doubts about the political neutrality of its intelligence agencies, especially ASIO. Attorney-General Lionel Murphy went so far as to make a midnight journey to the ASIO offices to search for material the government suspected was being withheld.

The current shape of Australia’s intelligence community dates back to December 2018, but it has been a work-in-progress for more than seventy years.

Cover of AFA9 SPY VS SPY

This is an extract from Australian Foreign Affairs 9: Spy vs Spy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.