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Spying in the age of coronavirus

Aug 24, 2020 • 16m 31s

The coronavirus is ushering in a new era of international relations, and intelligence agencies and spycraft are a key part of that change. Today, former intelligence officer Andrew Davies on the world of spies during and after the pandemic.

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Spying in the age of coronavirus

293 • Aug 24, 2020

Spying in the age of coronavirus

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

International relations are being reshaped in a way we haven’t seen since 9/11 ushered in the war on terror.

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating those changes, particularly in rising tensions between China and the West.

National intelligence agencies and the way they conduct spycraft are a key part of that change.

Today, former intelligence officer Andrew Davies on the world of spies during and after the pandemic.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Andrew, Covid-19 is affecting so many different aspects of the world as we know it, but you’ve been looking into the kind of impact it’s having on intelligence gathering and spycraft. What is one area where you think the impact of the pandemic has been the most pronounced?

ANDREW:

The impact of the pandemic has moved an awful lot of things online that used to be offline.

Governments have found themselves communicating much more by applications like Zoom and other online meeting systems, which means that there's an opportunity there for an enterprising intelligence collection agency to collect more information.

RUBY:

Andrew Davies wrote about Covid-19 and espionage for Australian Foreign Affairs.

ANDREW:

Now, of course, you've also got to have the ability to sift through it. So there's the challenge of dealing with the increased volume as well. But there's certainly the possibility there that there are now things online that previously would have taken place in conversations in offices, or around meeting tables that are now out there able to be intercepted.

RUBY:

And what do we know about how intelligence agencies themselves are grappling with the pandemic, beyond having this potential cache of online information?

ANDREW:

Well, it's a little bit hard to say from the outside, because we don't know exactly what conversations are happening between government and intelligence agencies. But we do have a few observations we can make.

Firstly, that pretty well documented now that there are extensive briefings in Washington as early as January about the situation in China and the potential for a global pandemic and the threat to the United States.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“Analysts concluded it could be a cataclysmic event. The dire warning was detailed in a report by the military's nationals center for medical intelligence.”

ANDREW:

But it appears that the Trump administration did nothing in particular in response to that. In fact, the reporting suggests that Trump himself was completely unengaged by the subject.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“President Trump said nobody saw the warning.”

Archival Tape -- Donald Trump:

“This came out of nowhere, nobody thought a thing like this could have happened.”

ANDREW:

Now, presumably, similar briefings happened here in Canberra and in the UK and Canada and New Zealand because of the very tight intelligence relationship between those five countries.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2:

“Still despite that report and the fact that western intelligence agencies knew for weeks about a new virus spreading through Hubei province, the government incident response group did not meet about the disease for another 17 days.”

ANDREW:

The response to the pandemic was less than perfect. So you really have to wonder whether that expert advice was listened to.

RUBY:

You mentioned the relationship between countries like Australia and the US in the intelligence space. Where does that relationship begin?

ANDREW:

Well, the US Australia cooperation really goes back to World War Two when the United States set up military headquarters here in Australia with intelligence components as well.

Archival Tape -- John Curtin:

“I have no doubt that our allies and ourselves will see this struggle through to its complete conclusion.”

ANDREW:

That grew into a pretty tight wartime intelligence relationship which continued on into the Cold War.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #3:

“The US Australia joint defence facility at Pine Gap was now engaged in foreign satellite intelligence collection.”

ANDREW:

Australia's intelligence agencies have a large capability in their own right, but that's also bolstered a lot by the alliance relationship they have. The so-called five eyes relationship with the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand, which really enables Australia to both have access to espionage technologies developed in any of those other countries, but also gives us the global reach that we wouldn't otherwise have on our own.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we had a relatively brief unipolar moment where the United States was the only superpower in the world. And as a result, intelligence kind of lost its focus a bit. But it was really 9/11 that refocused the world of intelligence and to a quite dramatic extent, too.

Archival Tape -- [Sounds of the plane crash]

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“We have something that has happened here at the world trade centre, my heavens, this has just happened within several minutes..”

Archival Tape -- George W Bush:

“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.

ANDREW:

For those of us who are working in intelligence when 9/11 happened, it's really hard to overstate the significance of it. It was really one of those chapter headings in history book type events.

Archival Tape -- John Howard:

“We are, as you all know, in a new and dangerous part of the world’s history. The tragic events of the eleventh of September have changed our lives.”

ANDREW:

Something that had gone from a sort of important but marginal part of the business, which was the counterterrorism espionage, suddenly became the most important job by far.

Archival Tape -- John Howard:

“National security is therefore about a proper response to terrorism.”

ANDREW:

It was quite extraordinary, the extent to which the intelligence agencies had to reinvent the way in which they interacted with one another, the way in which they shared information, and the way in which we worked with our international partners. So it was quite a pivotal event

Archival Tape -- John Howard:

“They have caused us to take pause and think about the values we hold in common with the American people and free people around the world.”

ANDREW:

There was always candidate counterterrorism, working intelligence before 9/11, but it was always at the periphery. But after 9/11 it consumed, roughly speaking, about a third of the resources of the intelligence network.

RUBY:

And that focus on terrorism. Did it come at the expense of anything else?

ANDREW:

Well, I think it did.

I think the focus on terrorism, particularly in the decade from 2001 to the early 2010s, meant that the Western intelligence world in particular missed a lot of the developments that were going on in China, which is the now the obvious major strategic competitor. And I think we were a bit asleep at the wheel there.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment

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RUBY:

Andrew, we’re talking about how a focus on terrorism within Western inteligence communities might have come at the expense of more closely monitoring China. How would you describe how China deploys its intelligence networks, and how does that differ to somewhere like the US?

ANDREW:

The models of espionage that states deploy reflects their state strengths and often weaknesses as well. So when you look at the way that China spies, it's not necessarily the same as the United States. They will certainly try to copy some of the successful technical means that the United States has available. But they'll also look at their own strengths and when one of the strengths they have is a very large population so that they're not short of manpower.

So I guess if I had to characterize Chinese intelligence, I'd say it has many of the same characteristics of Western intelligence, but it also casts a much wider net.

RUBY:

And Andrew, in your piece, you wrote that China quickly tried to take advantage of the pandemic, for geopolitical gain. What did they do?

ANDREW:

The Chinese government has done a couple of things during the Covid-19 pandemic that are relevant to a discussion of intelligence. In the first case, they were very slow to publicly acknowledge what was going on in Wuhan.

And from the point of view of Western intelligence, that would have been a challenge to try to piece together from the information that was available what was actually going on there. And I suspect that the efforts to understand what was going on in China is what resulted in the intelligence briefings in the first month of this year to Western governments. So that was the first part of the picture.

But having largely got things under control, or at least as far as we can tell that's the case, China has then tried to paint itself as a country that gripped up the crisis and can now move on. And, in fact, can even start to share its expertise and things like personal protective equipment with the rest of the world and is now trying to position itself as a positive thing in the Covid-19 pandemic.

RUBY:

Andrew, how is this modern approach to intelligence gathering different to what we saw in the more traditional era of spying? And what role has technology played as things have changed?

ANDREW:

Okay, well modern spying is more like traditional spying than it perhaps is often given credit for. The technology enables spy agencies to do the things that they've always done, but just in different technical ways. And the three broad categories of activities are, espionage, which is trying to uncover somebody else's secret information, sabotage and subversion. And I think in the last few years, we've seen a real growth in the business of subversion that's been enabled by the Internet and by social media.

If we go back a few years to the 2016 US presidential election, I think that was the first time that we saw very clearly a wide scale active subversion being carried out, in this case by Russia against the United States.

Archival Tape -- Robert Mueller:

“Our investigation found that the Russian government interfered in our election in a sweeping and systematic fashion.”

ANDREW:

Literally trying to subvert democracy by swinging the election in the direction of a favored candidate.

Archival Tape -- Sally Yates:

“The Russian Government had used cyber attacks, the strategic release of stolen information and a coordinated campaign to weaponise social media against American citizens.”

ANDREW:

I think that has certainly got people in the intelligence world thinking very hard about how you protect democracies when there's that sort of access to the population as a whole.

Archival Tape -- Rod Rosenstein:

“The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”

ANDREW:

Now, on top of that, we've had the pandemic come along at the start of 2020, just as we're ramping up for another US presidential election. And those two dynamics are playing against one another. The Russians will certainly be in there playing again. They would like to see President Trump reelected in another four years of chaotic administration in the United States.

But it's really hard for the US to focus on that because of the effect of the pandemic and what that's doing to the American polity and also the fact that the Trump administration is trying its hardest to ignore both of those things.

RUBY:

And, we don’t know who the US President will be after this year’s election, but the broader trends you’re describing… this renewed focus of state on state intelligence activities, and this breakdown in trust, they don’t seem like they’re going away. So, what do you think that means beyond the current pandemic?

ANDREW:

Looking at the future and what that might mean for intelligence, there's a number of things going on at the same time. The pandemic, I think, is dramatic and as influential as it is now, is probably in a distant third place to a couple of other things going on. One of which is climate change, which I happen to think is the greatest challenge that humanity faces at the moment.

And the other one is the increasing global competition between particularly China and the United States, but also the impact of other players like Russia, which is by almost any measure, a declining power. But because it's very carefully leveraged, its intelligence and information operations capabilities is playing a disproportionate role.

So I think the world of intelligence will be certainly focusing more on state on state activities, not entirely clear what the role of intelligence is for climate change. But one of the things that intelligence agencies might be worrying about is the impacts of climate change on the stability of countries, on the mass movement of people, and even on the policy responses of other countries that are not particularly open about it.

So I think there'll be plenty of challenges there to get on with. But I think the rise of superpower competition, again, which I think is what we're seeing, is going to be the single biggest issue.

RUBY:

Andrew, thank you for talking with me today.

ANDREW:

Thank you.

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news…

Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer Brett Sutton has declared daily Covid-19 case numbers will not rise above 300 again “under his watch”.

Sutton said the seven-day average of new cases continued to trend down. On Sunday, the state recorded 208 new cases of coronavirus.

The government also announced that 25,000 casual workers without sick leave had received the government’s payment enabling them to isolate at home while waiting for test results.

And in the Northern Territory, Labor is set for a second term in office after securing enough seats to form at least a minority government, according to the latest projections.

So far Labor has secured 11 seats, with 13 needed to form majority government. The party is expected to win at least one more seat.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

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The coronavirus is ushering in a new era of international relations of a kind we haven’t seen since 9/11 and the War on Terror. National intelligence agencies and the way they conduct spycraft are a key part of that change. Today, former intelligence officer Andrew Davies on the world of spies during and after the pandemic.

Guest: Contributor to Australian Foreign Affairs Andrew Davies.

Background reading:

Australian Foreign Affair: Mission Impossible

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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293: Spying in the age of coronavirus