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Reading the Australian Federal Police’s secret report into its elite network of undercover operatives is a confusing experience.

On the one hand, you are hit by the seriousness and the difficulty of the task confronting these elusive officers. They infiltrate hard-bitten and suspicious criminal organisations in countries all over the world – drug cartels, terror organisations – with little but their charm, their training and their antenna for danger to make sure they come out alive.

Their work is increasingly important as encrypted communication devices make it harder to crack criminal networks any other way. It’s also more dangerous as their secret identities come under new threat from facial identification software and DNA databases.

To do these jobs, they must have a well-resourced, well-managed organisation and people they trust back home, not least to build and backstop “legends” – fake identities – that will stand up to scrutiny.

It all sounds like the stuff of Hollywood movies – and one former undercover officer, Damian Marrett, said it was as addictive as heroin. But how the AFP has treated these people fits much more comfortably on the set of the ABC’s satire of public service life, Utopia.

Officers in the field have been undermined back at base, according to the report of former assistant commissioner Frank Prendergast, by the banality of budget cuts, management changes, obsolete technology. Box ticking.

‘It’s easy to see how these most risk-exposed officers felt abandoned, even betrayed by the organisation they relied on.’

Here’s the human resources system at work. “Covert personnel details are currently compartmentalised in SAP,” Prendergast’s report says, referring to a software suite for HR management, but “given changes being made to SAP this may no longer be possible”.

The real identities of undercover operatives could simply appear on the broader AFP system, he warned.

Expenses? A team leader in a regional office was forced to request approval from the superintendent of the entire division “to purchase any item, no matter how small, needed to progress an operation”. Officers are sometimes forced to borrow equipment from others on the job.

Then there’s industrial relations. Undercover operatives have wages and conditions set by the police enterprise bargaining agreement, which, Prendergast notes, has “caused some issues”.

At one point there was frustration that “undercover officers who were required to carry covert phones claimed substantial on-call allowances”, and at other times EBA provisions “have prevented undercover officers from carrying out their duties in a timely fashion”.

We can only speculate what this means but, said Prendergast, the situation is not “ideal”.

These might seem trivial issues, but cumulatively, they put lives at risk. Prendergast points to a parade of different bosses coming through the undercover program, some of whom did not understand the area they were entering and either did not stay long enough to find out or who tried to enact reforms that their successor dropped.

Meanwhile, repeated budget cuts nobbled everything from approval for assignments that might be too expensive to technological support back home.

Even legend building and backstopping, those crucial elements of secret identities, were so poorly staffed and resourced that some operatives had to travel and check into hotels using their own passports.

When undercover officers returned strung out from dangerous deployments, they were offered the pro forma annual psychological check-up available to everyone else.

Then, when their time was up, they had to find their own job back in the broader AFP. Aware of the risks they were taking and the lack of support back home, for some, serious trauma caught up with them.

This penny-pinching beggars belief. We’re not talking big bucks here: about $6 million at the program’s peak. But in one year, the annual budget plummeted to less than $400,000.

Little wonder that three undercover program operatives have made claims on the AFP, saying their safety remains at grave risk even after they left the job.

Their claims are contested, but, reading Prendergast’s scathing report, it’s easy to see how these most risk-exposed officers felt abandoned, even betrayed by the organisation they relied on.

The AFP insists that after a leadership change in 2019, Commissioner Reece Kershaw ordered the Prendergast inquiry and responded to it by overhauling the undercover program and appointing a board of international and national law enforcement experts to oversee changes.

The implication is they have fixed the problems. We have to take the AFP on trust there.

But that these failings were able to persist for so long is, in itself, a disgrace.

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