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Declassify the Garnaut ASIO report

By Tom Uren

To bring some badly needed facts to the verbal trench warfare over China's intelligence and interference operations in Australia, an unclassified version of the Garnaut-ASIO dossier should be published. This dossier, the result of an ASIO inquiry headed by former journalist and prime ministerial adviser John Garnaut, was commissioned by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in late 2016 and investigates clandestine interference in Australian politics.

The information in that still-secret dossier is the main reason the government wants its foreign interference legislation passed by Parliament. Although this legislation looks like it will become law, there is still tremendous value in releasing an unclassified version of the report.

Sometimes the paradox exists that intelligence is considered so valuable that it can't be used to good effect. But some stories need to be told.

The creators and collectors of intelligence are strong advocates for the protection of sources. Their job, after all, is to continue producing intelligence and losing sources is counterproductive. Additionally, the Australian intelligence community and Australian politicians have a relatively rigorous approach to information security and don't leak as standard business practice – not something that is necessarily true in other systems.

This robust security culture has costs. Sometimes, the benefits of publicly releasing intelligence are considerable, but the procedures for assessing the costs and benefits of doing so are not well-defined.

The classified report into Chinese government intelligence and interference operations in Australia – what has become known as the Garnaut-ASIO report – is a case in point. Undoubtedly there are sources and methods used in the production of this report that have enduring value and require protection.

On the other hand, much of the material in this report is not only a call to action, but also part of the solution.

Transparency required

First, some of this information could greatly inform Australian debate on the issue of Chinese interference. The current debate is devoid of common facts such that each side of the argument starts with entrenched philosophical positions and then assembles an army of supporting facts. Transparency would allow allegations to be aired, countered, and assessed.

Second, transparency would not only allow Australians to determine what is acceptable influence and what is not. Where do the boundaries between soft power, sharp power and illegal interference lie? These are tricky issues to ponder in the absence of concrete examples.

The discussion triggered by the release of this information would allow us to communicate clearly to the Chinese government where our boundaries lie. Building international business and cultural relationships is desirable, and a clearer delineation of limits would help keep our relationship with China within acceptable bounds.

Transparency has consistently been promoted as one of the solutions to Chinese interference, including by Garnaut, and Western Australian MP Andrew Hastie's use of parliamentary privilege to reveal information on Chinese interference implies that he agrees. Assessing the positive value in releasing intelligence is part of the cost-benefit equation that is not done in the intelligence community, nor should it be – the intelligence community can only be strong advocates for protecting sources. But government as a whole should take a positive decision on when and how to invest the effort to reveal information when possible.

And this isn't a binary decision about publishing everything and burning all our sources. There are many shades of grey that would allow much of the report to be released with redaction or light obfuscations so that we could get the greatest transparency for the least loss of capability.

This report illustrates the tension that lies in the use of secret intelligence. Intelligence is meant to inform action, yet sometimes the resulting action reveals the unique source of intelligence such that the intelligence source is lost. The benefit of action must be weighed against the ongoing value of a secret source. Sometimes, an ongoing source of intelligence is so valuable the possibility of loss prevents action been taken. 

During the Cold War, for example, Soviet bugging of the US embassy in Moscow seems to have been too valuable to jeopardise. A US Department of State report assessing the damage stated that Soviet intelligence had the ability to read "most, if not all, of our telegraphic messages between Washington and Moscow and between Washington and posts in Eastern Europe". Despite this the report found that "an extensive review of major crises and negotiations over the past 12 years does not provide evidence that the Soviets made use of knowledge thus gained to the detriment of our interests". And further "An explanation for this paradox may be that the Soviets valued the source far more than the use of any particular piece of information they got from it. In order to keep us from discovering their intelligence coup the Soviets appear to have sacrificed many of the specific gains they might have made, and eschewed actions that might have given them away."

Originally published by: Australian Financial Review on 27 Jun 2018