In the Fairfax press today, Hugh White criticises the recently released Cornall-Black Independent Review of the Australian Intelligence Community for its 'breathless endorsement of the status quo'. But although Hugh takes on a few debatable assumptions that seem to underpin the report, there's one piece of the status quo he does not question. 

Those familiar with Hugh White's work will not be surprised that he criticises the focus on counter-terrorism in the intelligence agencies and argues that much more effort needs to go towards analysing our Asian neighbours. He recommends a 'major new intelligence effort' aimed at 'understanding the intentions, capabilities and fears of other countries in our region.'

So Hugh wants intelligence resources to be re-directed, but in this article at least, he does not question the present size of the intelligence community. That's where I think the status quo bias creeps in. I have no complaints about a call for greater understanding of our region, but the role the intelligence community plays in that effort ought to be an open question.

The budget for the intelligence community has grown enormously since September 2001; rigorous scrutiny of how that money is being spent is necessary, but insufficient. We also need to ask what else we might be doing with that money, particularly if we think understanding our region is an urgent national priority. Could some of the money be better spent on Hugh's own excellent proposal to send young Australians into the region to become linguists? What about reversing our diplomatic deficit?

Let's also not forget the costs of putting intelligence agencies at the forefront of our efforts to understand the region. Inevitably, the very existence of these agencies, and the open secret that we are spying on our neighbours, creates international tension. The price may be worth it, but there is a price. There is also an enormous cost involved in collecting and protecting our secrets. Is that worth it? George Kennan has said: 

It is my conviction, based on some 70 years of experience...that the need by our government for secret intelligence about affairs elsewhere in the world has been vastly over-rated. I would say that something upwards of 95% of what we need to know about foreign countries could very well be obtained by the careful and competent study of perfectly legitimate sources of information open and available to us in the rich library and archival holdings of this country.

If Kennan is right, why not divert some of the intelligence community's budget to the universities or think tanks, who rely purely on open sources? (And yes, I acknowledge the glaringly obvious vested interest implicit in that last suggestion.) Not only will that avoid the financial burden of secrecy, but also the intellectual one, since classified intelligence is by its nature subject to less scrutiny and contestability than analysis which is in the public realm.

Incidentally, you'll be seeing much more on the issue of secrecy on The Interpreter in early March, when we launch a blog discussion leading up to a live forum in Canberra. More details soon.

Disclosures: (1) ASIO is a corporate member of the Lowy Institute; (2) I used to work at the Office of National Assessments and Defence Intelligence Organisation.

Photo by Flickr user katerha