|Patrick Walters, National security editor | April 04, 2009
Article from: The Australian
JUST weeks before he is due to deliver the Rudd Government's landmark defence blueprint for the next generation, Joel Fitzgibbon finds himself fighting for his political life. The bizarre allegation that the Defence Signals Directorate may have spied on its own minister and the revelations about his friendship with Chinese-Australian businesswoman Helen Liu have damaged Fitzgibbon and highlighted a deeper systemic crisis within Australia's defence administration.
When defence chiefs first heard the news from press reports nine days ago they were doubly shocked and amazed. Shocked that DSD could be accused of what would amount to a criminal offence and stunned that the Defence Minister had declined to tell them about the story about to be unleashed in Fairfax newspapers.
Whatever the doubts about the veracity of the initial story, it generated an immediate political effect. Fitzgibbon was forced to admit he had failed to declare two paid trips to China as a guest of Liu's.
But more than a week after the Fairfax press ran the story we are yet to see any hard evidence that suggests the Defence Department deliberately conducted a secret investigation into Fitzgibbon amid concerns about his ties with Liu.
The assertion that a DSD officer accessed Fitzgibbon's office computer systems and found Liu's banking details has been firmly rebutted by the Defence Department.
Defence so far has turned up nothing to substantiate the claims concerning DSD or that departmental officers had raised concerns about Fitzgibbon's China connections.
Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Ian Carnell is undertaking a forensic search into DSD's information technology networks that could take several months. Carnell's probe will try to ascertain whether anyone in DSD may have breached carefully prescribed guidelines on domestic interception of electronic communications.
Embattled Defence Department chief Nick Warner's carefully drafted statement issued a week ago bears careful scrutiny.
"Neither the Defence Signals Directorate nor any other part of Defence has had any access, authorised or unauthorised, to personal information within the Minister's office, including telephone contact numbers," Warner added carefully, noting that these were preliminary findings and Defence would continue to investigate the matter in co-operation with Carnell.
ASIO, unusually, also went to the trouble of publicly declaring they had no security interest in Liu.
If there is a genuine defence provenance to the claims published in the Fairfax press it would not have been orchestrated within DSD. It is more likely to reside with an individual in either the department's defence security or intelligence realm who felt his concerns about Fitzgibbon's ties with Liu were not being taken seriously by his superiors.
A tale that apparently began with an anonymous letter sent to The Age has produced a further serious erosion of trust between Fitzgibbon and his department, particularly at the top level.
Fitzgibbon knows he was guilty of poor judgment in not declaring the two China trips. The wisdom of subletting accommodation from the Liu family in Canberra, given his sensitive ministerial responsibilities, also should have generated further reflection.
Kevin Rudd has made it clear than any further transgressions of the kind Fitzgibbon reported last week will end his tenure as Defence Minister. With the Prime Minister thinking about a ministerial reshuffle later this year, Fitzgibbon's performance over the coming weeks will be crucial for his immediate political trajectory.
Like all of his recent predecessors who have held the defence portfolio, Fitzgibbon has struggled to exert his authority over that huge, lumbering beast and its $22 billion annual budget. Relations between Fitzgibbon and his top departmental advisers were never smooth from the start. Mutual suspicion early on has gradually evolved into a mutual lack of confidence. "It's sour but the work continues," observed one senior official earlier this week. On Fitzgibbon's part there is a palpable sense that at times he has been badly let down by his department and given misleading advice, contributing further to a steady erosion of confidence.
Early on Fitzgibbon's party political instincts came to the fore in the handling of sensitive procurement issues alarming his bureaucratic advisers. In the view of his critics he pushed too hard in wanting Defence to seriously consider the F-22 fighter, never a serious option, embarrassing the Pentagon in the process.
Fitzgibbon's own steep learning curve in the portfolio has been hampered by a parliamentary office short of experienced advisers with a deep knowledge of the defence business. He lost his first chief of staff, Daniel Cotterill, after just nine months in the job.
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