Australia gains from US intel

Prime Minister Howard has announced that Australia will double its intelligence agency by 2010.

Australia's controversial participation in the US-led war in Iraq has yielded a few rewards for the conservative government of John Howard, a strong Bush supporter: First, and more public, was the speeding up of the free-trade agreement with the US. Then came a more shadowy benefit: The right to share in the highest levels of intelligence which had so far been reserved for the US's closest ally, Britain.

Some experts see this benefit as a mere formality, but Australian intelligence officers are now at least officially on par with their British counterparts.

In the past, Australian officers were often banned from briefings during the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, by the American officers in charge, even if the information being discussed contained intelligence gathered by the Australians.

Australia was gladly accepted as part of the "coalition of the willing," but it was clear that it was a second rank member.

This was something Prime Minister Howard, who announced Sunday that Australia will double the size of its intelligence agency by 2010 to combat terrorism, took upon himself to persuade the Bush administration to change.

Howard got his wish after last year's AUSMIN meeting of Australian and US foreign and defense ministers when, as The Australian newspaper reported, the two countries signed a joint statement indicating a new level of intelligence sharing had been agreed upon.

The agreement granted Canberra access to all levels of raw US intelligence, US assessments of that intelligence, and real time operational information and planning.

Also Canberra reportedly now has a permanent senior officer stationed at the US Strategic Command in Nebraska. The Australian's foreign editor, Greg Sheridan writes that "...to have Australians stationed there at high levels of seniority is a sign of the depth of the intelligence relationship."

"This information is going to be at levels not seen here before, and definitely beneficial to Australia, although it is a two-way business and it may make countries like neighboring Indonesia more cautious about what they share with Canberra, as it's likely to go to Washington," says intelligence expert Leszek Buszenski, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.

Some experts, though, say the new decree may only benefit Australia, giving the US very little in exchange.

Aldo Borgu, a former intelligence adviser to the government and director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra says that while the US looks to bolster and gain intelligence in southeast Asia from its Australian ally, it will always have its own people to depend on. "We have to be realistic about this ... we are all foreign countries as far as the US is concerned and there is no case of any sort of increased dependency on Australia, especially after 9/11, and the US does not want to depend on any one country for information."

The security of information flowing from Australian intelligence services is expected to be even tighter than before, with the US calling the shots about where, when, and with whom the information can be shared.

Yet sharing secrets is never a comfortable business and some parts of the US bureaucracy are reportedly not totally comfortable with the current new status of Australia.

They have good reason.

Jean Philippe Wispalaere, 28, worked for the Australian Defence Intelligence Organization from July 1998 to January 1999 and was cleared to work with US top secret and sensitive information under the US- Australian defense treaties.

When he quit, he sold more than 900 such documents for $120,000 by mail from Bangkok to a "foreign spy" who was really a US counterintelligence agent in disguise.

He then traveled to the US to meet with the agent on May 15,1999, when he was arrested at Dulles International airport by FBI agents.

He was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

Ross Babbage, former Australian intelligence official and head of Strategy International in Canberra, says, "It's not a dramatic change we are seeing here, just a loosening of inhibitions and a recognition that Australia is involved in a range of operations from Afghanistan to Iraq."

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