Commentary |
2 October 2019

Donald Trump's bizarre logic damages US allies' trust in intelligence sharing

The US president appears to believe Australian spies are part of a deep-state conspiracy. Australia should be wary of the risks of getting drawn into his defence. Originally published in The Guardian.

Daniel Flitton
Daniel Flitton

It really is a poke in the eye – the “Five Eyes”, that is. Donald Trump’s telephone call to Scott Morrison, revealed on Tuesday in the New York Times, where he pressed for help in investigating the origins of the Mueller inquiry, will doubtless put a further strain on what is otherwise a very close intelligence-sharing partnership between the United States and Australia.

Why? Because aside from the unwanted political distraction of putting Australia at the centre of another Trump tirade (just as Morrison was seeking to apply the blowtorch to Labor at home for what he called “naive and immature” remarks about China), the twisted logic of Trump’s allegation is truly extraordinary.

Stripped bare of the thorns of conspiracy, what the man sitting in the Oval Office appears to believe is that Australian spies, part of a “deep state” in cahoots with American counterparts, aided by Britain, with ties to Ukraine, took it upon themselves in 2016 to devise a plan to subvert the will of the American people to elect one Donald J Trump.

Wow.

It must raise serious questions about trusting the most sensitive of national secrets to the US president, when it cannot be clear what he might do with them. And just as importantly, the whole saga once again raises the danger of politicising intelligence material.

Trump’s private call to Morrison, reportedly made in early September, was surely anticipated. After all, it was back in May that Trump had publicly roped in Australia into what he derided as the “hoax that was perpetrated on our country” when he asked US attorney general William Barr to find out what led to the Mueller report.

Australia’s ambassador in Washington, Joe Hockey, had been quick to write to Barr with a pledge of “best endeavours” to support this inquiry, evincing a trust in a US system that in normal times might have pursued an outcome based on evidence and due process, but nowadays appears driven by the rivalry and jealousy of court intrigue.

This is nothing like ordinary and cannot be excused as another of Trump’s strange twittering tendencies. Leave aside Ukraine for the moment and the other infamous phone call to the Ukrainian president that kickstarted the impeachment investigations now roiling Washington; in Trump’s imagined takedown, that’s three of the five intelligence-sharing partners all implicated. By the US president, no less.

Think about that. This is not a mole or massive leak of the kind which has tested the intelligence-sharing partnership before, but a fundamental questioning of trust. Australia must be wary of the risk of too readily justifying Trump’s behaviour simply because of the value of access to US intelligence. The risk that his allegations and actions pose to Australia’s interest should be made explicit to American officials.

The Five Eyes arrangement dates back more than 70 years, a partnership to share highly classified intelligence formed after the second world war between the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The moniker “Five Eyes” was itself secret for many years, such is the careful protection of this division of signals intercepts, human assets, geospatial imagery and intelligence assessments.

Yet the value of sharing between trusted partners was seen as crucial to give these western allies an edge in their dealings with the rest of the world. As uncomfortable and blunt as it might sound to say this out loud, that is the point of spying. “It’s much more fun to play cards if you can read the other guy’s hand,” as one former CIA official once told me.

There are a lot of misplaced assumptions about the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-controlling ability of spy agencies, and that’s where Trump appears to have suffered. Despite the Hollywood hype or the great Le Carré-esque fiction, the truth is that so much intelligence work is a matter of adding a fine focus rather than producing some great previously unknown revelation, fomenting a coup or causing some astonishing change in behaviour.

Yet because spy agencies work in the shadows, never to confirm or deny their actions, nothing is ever proven. Try as you might, you’ll never dissuade some Australians that the CIA wasn’t somehow involved in the toppling of Gough Whitlam, despite no evidence ever being produced. The absence of evidence is somehow instead twisted proof of secret intrigue.

But back to Trump, and the consequences for today.

What doubtlessly fuels this plot is that it was Alexander Downer who as Australia’s high commissioner in London dobbed in then-Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos in 2016 for a drunken brag about Russia offering a trove of Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails. Downer, when he previously served as Australia’s foreign affairs minister, had oversight of Australia’s secret intelligence service.

For Australians who have observed Downer’s political career over decades, the idea he would be embedded in an elaborate scheme to ruin the prospect of a Republican candidate, even one as oafish as Trump, simply does not pass the pub test. But again, some people will never be convinced by the absence of evidence. The US president appears to be one of them.

Trump has already authorised the release of the transcript of the Ukraine phone call, apparently without his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy understanding that both sides of the conversation would become public, and being deeply embarrassed by the resulting disclosure.

Clearly Zelenskiy’s experience should be a warning for Australia not to assume that Trump will keep secret any aspect of information obtained from Australia that either he or his officials believe will be helpful to Trump’s cause – no matter how tangential it might appear.

That doesn’t mean Australia has anything to hide. But the risk here is being dragged into the defence of a president who just might.

Daniel Flitton edits the Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute, and was previously an intelligence analyst for the Australian government