Spotlight on NSA. Taiwan’s sunflower protests defy China. Will HK get direct elections? By Hamish McDonald.

Probe into CIA may shake Canberra

Senate intelligence committee  chairwoman Dianne Feinstein leaves the chamber on Capitol Hill last month. She claims the CIA has violated the constitution and the law.
Senate intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein leaves the chamber on Capitol Hill last month. She claims the CIA has violated the constitution and the law.
Credit: AP

The heat is on under spookdom in Washington, and it will cause some uncomfortable splashes in Canberra.

The Central Intelligence Agency may be blasting death from drones above places like Waziristan and Yemen, but in its Langley, Virginia, headquarters CIA chiefs are nervously watching an 80-year-old lady down the river on Washington’s Capitol Hill.

Dianne Feinstein has long chaired the US senate’s intelligence committee, normally combining scrutiny with helpful understanding of dirty tricks involved in spying. For the committee’s long-running inquiry into the CIA’s practices of rendition, secret detention and “enhanced interrogation” during the George W. Bush presidency, the CIA was most helpful, allowing committee staff to set up isolated supposedly secure computers at Langley to go through some 6 million pages of documents.

After their 6300-page report was finalised, some documents were taken to the committee offices, which are also secure. These related to an earlier internal CIA review that found many violations of the law during the War on Terror, a review that CIA chiefs had suppressed. The CIA then initiated a criminal complaint against the committee staff to the Justice Department. But how did it find out? By breaking into the committee’s computers.

Senator Feinstein is much less understanding now. After blasting the CIA on the floor of the senate for violations of the constitution and the law, she and her colleagues have voted to release the 400-page summary of the report. According to press reports, it concludes the CIA misled not only the public but its own government about its program of water-boarding and other torture techniques, by minimising
the severity of this interrogation, exaggerating the importance of the intelligence it gained, and actually attributing to torture some of the information given by prisoners under legal, non-forceful interrogation.

The CIA is weakly saying this is the wrong conclusion. Last Sunday, where else but on Fox TV, former agency chief Michael Hayden accused Feinstein of being “emotional” (i.e., just a woman).

It remains to be seen whether President Obama clears the summary, and how severe the redactions are. If and when it appears, it should raise questions in Canberra. Over the years I have been assured at the highest levels of the Department of Foreign Affairs and
Trade and ASIO that what went on at Guantanamo Bay “was not torture”. But copies of consular reports on the welfare of the Australian prisoner David Hicks, eventually obtained from DFAT under freedom of information, were heavily redacted, under the copouts allowed to protect information supplied by another country or to avoid damage to Australia’s foreign relations.

Truth may out, to the embarrassment of the Howard-era ministers and officials who defended what was going on.

1 . Spotlight on NSA

Electronic spookery is also on the defensive, as a result of the cache of secrets being spilled by the former National Security Agency computer whiz Edward Snowden.

Revelations about tapping the mobile phones of friendly leaders
and the vacuuming of individual communications into a secret archive have caused diplomatic embarrassment and compromised methods.

Now some attention is turning to
a much broader question: how effective
is this catch-all collection of data in detecting security threats, particularly the terrorist networks that are cited to justify it? Not much, say security experts such as Washington’s much-consulted Edward Luttwak, who say that instead
of focusing on suspects, the NSA is intercepting everybody.

And how to find the suspects? In large part by the old-fashioned methods of penetration, putting agents into opposing organisations, as the British MI5 did against the IRA and Israel’s Mossad and Shin Bet do with the Palestinians and others. This is a field largely vacated by the vastly bigger CIA, whose supposedly “operational” side is just another desk-bound bureaucracy whose personnel “don’t want to miss their golf or PTA meetings”, according to Luttwak.

The intelligence output from these outfits is often cited as the major benefit
of our alliance with the United States. Touchingly, our minister in charge of ASIO, federal Attorney-General George Brandis, has faith in this system. “Some, usually those with a better-informed appreciation of the capabilities and danger of sophisticated modern terrorism, would wish for fewer limitations on intelligence gathering in the name of public safety,” he said at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies this week. “Others, most commonly those who do not bear responsibility for the protection of the public, and who have the luxury of approaching the question from a largely philosophical or legalistic perspective, argue that there should be much wider limitations.”

2 . Taiwan’s sunflower protests defy China

China is having trouble on its fringe territories, but unlike Russia’s Vladimir Putin, its leaders are having to put up with it.

In Taiwan, students occupied the island republic’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, for 21 days to force the government of President Ma Ying-jeou
to modify a planned trade-in-services agreement with mainland China.

Ma, who led a comeback for the Kuomintang (KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party) in 2008, has been lessening tensions with Beijing by fostering closer economic and tourism ties. Recently, officials from the Chinese and Taiwan governments met directly and openly for the first time since 1949. But the services agreement has hit a nerve, with up to half a million people coming out in demonstration to support the students against a pact that could overwhelm local businesses.

This opposition suggests a swing back to candidates favouring a bit more distance. Taking the sunflower as its symbol, the student protest must be uncomfortably like the “colour” revolutions in Eastern Europe that Beijing often accuses the West of trying to replicate in China. Taiwan is proving an awkward testbed for Chinese democracy.

3 . Will HK get direct elections?

Hong Kong, meanwhile, is stirring with political activity as the 2017 deadline approaches for direct election of the territory’s chief executive, the successor position to the former British governors.

Currently, the chief executive is elected by a 1200-member committee, its members chosen by some 28 “functional constituencies”, which is largely stacked with representatives of big businesses beholden to opportunities in the Chinese mainland.

The basic law or constitution adopted on the handover from British rule in 1997 set 20 years as the goal for direct election by universal suffrage. China’s virtual parliament, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, said in 2007 that this “may” be possible in 2017. Hong Kong pro-democracy leaders are trying to hold Beijing to this, and head off the spoiling moves of a pre-vetting system to make sure only pliable candidates can run.

Former legislator Martin Lee and former top civil service official Anson Chan have been touring capitals in democratic countries for support, drawing Chinese rebukes for their hosts for “interfering in China’s domestic affairs”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 12, 2014 as "Probe into CIA actions may shake Canberra".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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