Editorial | Criminal, convert, radical … blabbermouth

PET’s biggest problem right now isn’t that a former agent is spilling the beans, it is that no-one prevented him from becoming an agent in the first place

Following along with the series of stories about PET agent Morten Storm, it should be beyond any doubt that it is time to change the way we keep tabs on the spy agency. Even with the successes PET can claim in preventing terrorism, questions abound about the way it does its business.

Given the continued uncertainty about what role PET may or may not have played in the targeted killing of US-born terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, there’s good reason to heed the calls of critics and take a close look at its use of informants and whether it is engaging in operations abroad in violation of its mandate.

An investigation into PET is likely to bring new information to light, but those demanding clarity about intelligence operations should prepare to be disappointed. Spying is by nature secretive, and we’ve already seen that one of the most serious attempts to help improve transparency at the organisation concluded only this February after being in the works since 1998.

Ironically, one the key elements of that report was a proposal for how to monitor the use of civilian agents like Storm, and it is tempting to think that such control would have forced the agency to stop using a former criminal and self-promoter, turned Muslim convert, turned radical, turned agent, turned blabbermouth.

Although PET chief Jakob Scharf has already announced his support for greater oversight, he has also warned that too much transparency can be a bad thing. Instead of “demystifying” PET entirely, he would keep some facts about its operations under his hat. Secrecy, he has said, “has a preventive effect all its own”.

Assuming he is right, then one of the challenges of any oversight reform would be to allow him to keep the secrecy he says he needs, yet at the same time open up the agency enough for someone to have a clear idea of whether it plays by the rules.

Right now most of what we know about how PET operates comes from the allegations of a man who we know has already lied to at least one group of people who trusted him. The problem with Morten Storm isn’t so much that he likes to run his mouth. The problem is that he was chosen as an agent in the first place. If PET can’t do a better a job at identifying its friends, you can only wonder how well it can identify our enemies.