The revelations that Senator Sam Dastyari warned a Chinese Communist Party-linked Labor donor that his phone was likely tapped by intelligence agencies are certainly newsworthy and in the public interest.
The Turnbull government has since flagged a raft of new intelligence laws. The legislation, to be introduced into parliament this week, will reportedly include:
banning Australian political parties from receiving foreign donations
strengthening laws on the disclosure of classified information
making it a crime to support foreign intelligence agencies
restrictions targeting foreign spies.
The public release of intelligence can no doubt have a powerful impact on the political environment, as last week’s reports about Dastyari demonstrate. The claims are certainly troubling, but when secret intelligence becomes front-page news, it is always worth looking beyond the headline.
Public intelligence is political intelligence
Classified and sensitive information is designed to be secret. When it is made public it is always for a political purpose. That purpose may be to promote a particular political agenda or to build public support for a certain policy position.
It may even be for partisan political gain, but it will always affect the political narrative. Because intelligence disclosures are so sensational, they are a very effective method of drawing attention to certain issues while distracting from others.
Intelligence that is deliberately released to the media for political purposes is known as “public intelligence”. When secret intelligence becomes public intelligence, it becomes a powerful tool of political influence.
Intelligence has an authority and influence that may not reflect its content. This is because of the psychological impact of intelligence.
Intelligence is usually classified, which makes it appear valuable. It is often collected covertly, so the public expects it to reveal hidden secrets. The result is that information from intelligence sources is treated with an unusually high degree of reverence and respect.
Intelligence also has a voyeuristic, illicit appeal. When intelligence stories feature in the news, readers are given a glimpse of a world that is normally off-limits. This is especially true for a generation raised on Bond movies, whose primary understanding of intelligence activities stems from popular culture.
Stories that feature intelligence exposes can therefore expect to have a broad audience, reaching beyond the typical consumer of political news.
Public intelligence has limitations
Despite its appeal, public intelligence has several significant limitations.
First, it is important to remember that public intelligence is incomplete. It is only a small section of a greater picture, and usually offered without context or nuance.
Intelligence reports are uncertain; the judgments they contain are always qualified. But in the process of selecting the information for publication, any cautionary judgments or concerns about sources are removed. As a result, when select pieces of intelligence are publicly released, intelligence loses its uncertainty and gains an authority and aura of truth that may not be deserved.
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The now-discredited intelligence dossier on weapons of mass destruction released prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq is a case in point. In the aftermath of the invasion, when the weapons could not be found, it was revealed that the intelligence released publicly had been cherry-picked, that ambiguous evidence was presented as certified proof, and that the intelligence judgments had been massaged to more firmly fit the political line.
The second point to consider is that publicly released intelligence usually cannot be corroborated or contested. Even though certain pieces of intelligence may be released, the source and methods used to obtain that information are not.
This means that even if they wished to, neither the press nor the public have the means to assess the accuracy of intelligence information. We simply do not know if the information comes from a trustworthy source, or was obtained by reliable methods. However, we are not able to refute it.
Public intelligence should be viewed critically
Because of the political nature of public intelligence, combined with its limitations as a reliable source, both media producers and consumers should consider public intelligence with greater scepticism than other news items, not less.
Dastyari’s conduct should not be excused or minimised. However, when secret intelligence becomes public intelligence, it may pay for us to ask where our attention is being drawn, why that might be the case, and what we might be missing while we are looking the other way.