29/03/2016 12:06 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

The Intel On Intelligence Gathering In Times Of Terror


In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, Jakarta and Belgium, intelligence collectors and police everywhere are under immense pressure to collect the necessary intelligence to protect us from future violence. In this pressure-cooker environment the intelligence and police agency red lines for acceptable covert intelligence collection are at risk of being blurred. Given what is at stake, methods and techniques that might have previously been considered questionable are now likely to look a lot more attractive to those in the field.

US authorities estimate that upwards of 80 percent of all of their intelligence holdings are unclassified and originate from 'open source': material that is freely available to all of us. The other 20 percent is secret intelligence. This intelligence has been collected covertly by police and national security agencies. It's the secret intelligence that is, more often than not, critical in thwarting terror plots.

In the intelligence profession, secrecy, deception, imagination and manipulation, among other similar traits, are the keys to success. It's a point that is made very clear at the beginning of all intelligence collector's career. I vividly remember one of my instructors, at the very beginning of my career, telling me that 'when you hang around the pond, you're bound to get a bit of scum on you'. He was alluding to the need to lie, and take on some of the characteristics of those that you deal with when collecting intelligence.

Australia's Intelligence Community is comprised of dedicated professionals who have a strong individual and cultural focus on protecting our nation. They've gone through a lengthy selection process focused on assuring emotional stability and reliability. They're well-educated and trained. And through this training, they've been successfully indoctrinated into their organisations and the wider intelligence community.

On a daily basis Australia's intelligence and law enforcement agencies balance the use of covert methods, with the legislative requirements that protect our freedoms while trying to live to the values of our nation. Not an easy task for anyone, but that's why they recruit so stringently.

In the intelligence and law enforcement community this strong core can at times be fertile ground for cultural weakness. From my experience a number of the members of this homogenous profession have underpinned their work with an ethical belief that the end justifies the means. And why not, after all they have to justify the fact that they're permitted to be dishonest and manipulative.

Cases where good intelligence professionals have crossed the red line, believing that they were doing the right thing, are not uncommon.

In 2000, an Australian Army intelligence sergeant serving with the United Nations gave a disposable camera to an East Timorese man to take photos of installations within Indonesia's West Timor: by all accounts without the sanction of his superiors. The Timorese man was caught by Indonesian authorities and the intelligence sergeant was sent home. You could argue that the incident involved bad decision making, but I believe at the heart of the sergeant's motivation was a desire to serve his country.

It was only last week that allegations resurfaced around the tactics and behavior of a number of UK police undercover operatives in the '90s. It is alleged that these male undercover officers started long-term sexual relationships with female targets associated with anti-capitalism protest groups: as a means to manipulate them into unwittingly providing information. It has been reported that the police force involved recently settled out of court with a number of these women.

When I think about this unsavory incident I am reminded of another lesson from a supervisor early in my career 'that they [the target] are always sitting next to their best friend, you are not'. If the undercover officers involved had manipulated and deceived the women into believing that they were confiding in friends, their actions would have been perfectly acceptable by the intelligence profession's standards.

But the issue here is not just about good people going bad, it's also about the immense pressure that the Intelligence and law enforcement communities are under to protect us.

Within hours of this week's bombing tragedy in Belgium, the inevitable commentary about intelligence failure started flowing. After the attack, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said that the U.S. should use waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques. It would be easy to interpret this kind of pressure as justification to go closer to, or over, the red line of acceptable intelligence norms.

In Australia we have a strong accountability framework to address organisational overreach within both the Australian Intelligence Community and law enforcement. The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security reviews the activities of the Australian Intelligence Community, and does a great job. But it's a long way from the field where operators are making decisions.

From my experience and research, more oversight of Australian Intelligence Agencies and Law Enforcement will not resolve these challenges. Instead, Australia's intelligence professionals need to be armed with a strong ethical decision-making model. This model needs to provide a framework for intelligence professionals to explore their decisions from a variety of perspectives. This model needs to breakdown sub-cultures committed to a belief that the 'end justifies the means'.

As for the intelligence red line, I think it's subjective, and as such I suspect that we'll never reach a public consensus on its specific location. But for most of us we'll know when it's been crossed when we see it.