AN OBSESSION with secrecy and a resistance to change mean Australia's intelligence agencies are failing to exploit valuable and freely available information, former intelligence officers say.
Many intelligence officers still do not have access to the internet, they say, and the six intelligence agencies still do not have a functioning electronic system for sharing information.
The information revolution has given the agencies access to masses of "open source" intelligence, especially on the internet.
The US is exploiting these sources, with analysts delving into chatrooms used by extremists. Even YouTube is a source of "honest to goodness" intelligence, according to a recent speech by Doug Naquin, head of the US Open Source Centre, based in the CIA.
But Australian agencies, costing more than $1.3 billion a year, were a long way behind, said Ian Wing, a former senior defence intelligence officer. Up to 95% of intelligence sought by governments was available from open sources, but Australian agencies focused on information obtained secretly, Dr Wing said.
He said an obsession with secrecy meant that as recently as 12 months ago, ASIO officers were barred from using the internet. The Sunday Age has been told the situation is largely unchanged.
Dr Wing, who retired last year, said Australia's spies lacked a system for sharing information electronically, unlike their US counterparts, who can even share ideas on internal blogs. "The level of technology that's available to our children is far better than anything the intelligence agencies have," he said.
His claims, endorsed by other former intelligence officers contacted by The Sunday Age, have been reinforced by a report by Carl Ungerer, a former intelligence analyst.
In a report for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, he warned that efforts to reform Australian intelligence have stalled, with agencies "reluctant to move quickly into the new security environment".
A system of "IT connectivity", for the agencies to share information, was still not complete despite a 2004 inquiry saying it was "in need of urgent attention".
His report did not focus on "open source" intelligence, but Dr Ungerer told The Sunday Age the agencies placed a premium on secrets, and were only now showing a belated interested in open sources. Agencies placed intelligence in a hierarchy, "and in that hierarchy I have to say that open source wasn't the creme de la creme".
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