Canberra's record on outsourcing ‘intelligence’ to US military

May 2, 2023
US defence personnel advisors (from top): Retired US Vice Admiral William Hilarides; Retired Rear Adm Stephen Johnson; Retired Admiral John Richardson; former US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Image: Green Left

In the United States, “security” and “intelligence services” are outsourced in a sprawling complex of contractors and subcontractors. In Australia, however, the entire military and security establishment is outsourced to Washington’s former mandarins, with many earning a pile in consultancy fees.

This, perhaps, is what defence minister Richard Marles meant when he talked about the Australian Defence Force (ADF) moving “beyond interoperability to interchangeability”.

The list of recipients is depressingly long and suggests Canberra has ceased to have any pretensions of sovereignty in defence matters.

Take the appointment of US Vice Admiral William Hilarides to the post of reviewing the future of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet, for which he is pocketing US$4000 a day. Since 2016, he has received US$1.3 million in contracts from the Australian government.

Hilarides featured in a story by the Washington Post (WP) last year, which revealed that two retired US admirals and three former US Navy civilian leaders were “playing critical but secretive roles as paid advisers to the government of Australia during its negotiations to acquire top-secret nuclear submarine technology from the United States and Britain”.

It gets worse: six retired US admirals are named as having offered their services to the federal government since 2015. Hilarides was particularly keen, having only retired two months before seeking permission to advise Australia on how best to extend the life of its Collins Class submarine fleet.

US Navy officials approved the application within five days, and forwarded it to the US State Department, which treated it as a mere formality.

Hilarides stated that he would be receiving money from a contract between the Australian Commonwealth and the consulting firm Burdenshaw Associates, based in Fairfax City, Virginia. The same firm has received US$6.8 million from the Australian taxpayer since 2015.

In a statement provided to the WP, the Department of Defence revealed that Hilarides, another admiral Thomas Eccles, and a number of those on the Commonwealth’s Naval Shipbuilding Expert Advisory Panel, were furnishing Canberra with “expert advice on the performance of the naval shipbuilding exercise. This includes the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines and other issues relevant to naval acquisition and sustainment”.

Stephen Johnson, one of the US admiral advisory set, also served as a deputy secretary of defence for Canberra for two years it has just been revealed.

With such a level of involvement, it is only a matter of time before the ADF is signed over to Washington (if it already hasn’t been already been done over a game of golf).

In documents supplied to Congress by the Pentagon in March, the outsourcing picture comes increasingly clotted.

Retired Admiral John Richardson makes an appearance, having received US$5000 a day as a contracted, part-time consultant with the defence department.

Former US Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James Clapper, has also made an appearance in this busy outsourcing circuit.

The Australian National University (ANU) has made a habit of hosting Clapper at the ANU National Security College to discuss, among other things, “key global and national security issues including the future of Australia’s alliance with the United States”.

Clapper’s academic waltz through the corridors of power has involved discussions “with policy makers and security practitioners, as well as academics, students and private sector partners in the College’s work on issues such as cyber security and analysing future strategic challenges”.

The Pentagon documents also reveal that Clapper received, in 2018, an undisclosed sum for services performed for the Office of National Intelligence (ONI) in Canberra.

Only the previous year, Malcolm Turnbull’s government decided to create the ONI as “a single point of intelligence coordination”. This was praised by Clapper as bringing Australia more into line with the other Five Eyes partners.

We can only hope that Clapper has not imparted too much knowledge upon the unwary. His record as DNI was filled with a number of injudicious howlers. For instance, in March 2013, he falsely testified before the US Senate Intelligence Committee that the government does “not wittingly” collect the telephone records of millions of Americans.

“There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect — but not wittingly,” he said in response to a question.

Within a matter of months, it became clear that was false, notably in light of the revelations from former defence contractor Edward Snowden.

The New York Times was emphatic: Clapper had “lied to Congress”. In his withering critique of Clapper, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul suggested that the intelligence community had engaged in “great abuses”. He proposed that both Snowden and Clapper might serve time “in a prison cell together” to further enlighten the country “over what we should and shouldn’t do”.

In 2019, Clapper did his Pontius Pilate act on CNN, claiming that he did not lie so much as make “a big mistake”. He “just simply didn’t understand” what he was being asked.

“I thought of another surveillance program, section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, when I was asked about Section 215 of the Patriot Act at the time.”

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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