The performance and integrity of our security services is a serious national problem. These are particular problems for agencies which operate in secret and with few public checks. We have seen that they are prepared to upstage ministers and undermine governments on key public issues like relations with China at the moment. There is no effective supervision in the public interest as the Hastie/Lewis mess illustrates. Governments must make our security services accountable. But they are frightened to do so. This is an urgent public issue. And the ALP has gone AWOL.
I have spoken and written earlier about my experiences and my concerns.
In my book ‘Things you learn along the way’, published in 1999, I set out some of my reservations. On page 134, I wrote:
“My experience with people in the intelligence and security community over 20 years taught me to be very cautious. They seriously deceived me twice without any apology or seeming regret. Deception of friend as well as foe was all in the game. I found many of them brittle, and not all that smart or well balanced. They are however adept in doling out juicy bits of information that are often untested, but draw one into the inner circle of people with privileged information, a twilight world of secrets and gossip. Perhaps we all read too many spy thrillers and vicariously want to be part of the action. Few are immune.’
I also set out my particular concern about abuse of security services by government. I wrote (p.181)
Foreign Minister Peacock and his department were instructed [by Malcolm Fraser] to open an embassy in Bagdad as a cover for the posting of an ASIS agent, with the task of investigating Whitlam(loan raisings) and his connection in Iraq. Alan Renouf, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and his Deputy, Nick Parkinson, together with Ian Kennison, Head of ASIS, were to say the least disturbed that this was not a legitimate intelligence gathering exercise. As Head of Fraser’s Department I spelt out my concern to Kennison and others and told him that he should refuse to open an ASIS office. If he couldn’t refuse, he should at least insist on a written direction from Peacock, his Minister. The written direction was given, the Bagdad post opened, including an ASIS agent. The post was closed within 12 months.’
In October 2012, addressing Catholics in Coalition for Justice and Peace, I spoke about one experience with ASIO when I was Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. I said
‘A Japanese academic, Professor Hidaka wanted to come to Australia (for a position at the ANU). On the advice of ASIO, Ian Macphee, my minister, decided against a temporary permit for Hidaka to come to Australia. The academic community were very uptight and upset with what Ian Macphee and I had done. Academics carried on a campaign for about six months in opposition to the minister’s decision. One day, out of the blue, the Director General of ASIO, Harvey Barnett, came to see me and said “John, I see you’re copping a fair bit of flack over Hidaka”. I said, “You can certainly say that again. We have copped a lot of flack over the decision which the minister made on your recommendation.” He said, quite clearly, “Would you like us to change the recommendation?”’
So ASIO changed its recommendation and we invited Hidaka to apply again. He told us in effect, to go and jump in the Molonglo.
But all this was some decades ago and critics might say that security services have greatly improved since then. They would need to. In the meantime, the security/intelligence agencies have significantly increased powers and increased resources. But I cannot see much improvement in their performance and accountability. Just look at a few recent examples.
- ASIS bugged the East Timorese Cabinet Room in 2004 to obtain information to help Australia in negotiations over the Timor Gap with its estimated oil and gas reserves worth $40b. The ASIS Director General at the time subsequently became the Director General of ASIO. He is now the Chair of the FIRB board which advises the government on all foreign investments, including Chinese investment. If there were any serious supervision of ASIS and its leader over this improper and possibly illegal operation in East Timor the Director General of ASIS would have been at least disciplined. But no – he was subsequently appointed as head of ASIO and later FIRB.It is just another example of the unwillingness of governments to stand up to our security agencies.
- A former senior ASIS officer (Witness K) who had been closely involved in the bugging in Timor had his passport seized and was harassed continually by ASIO because he was proposing to testify on the subject to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. Apparently he decided to testify when he leaned that former Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer had become an advisor to Woodside Petroleum. The secretary of Downer’s department, the late Ashton Calvert, later took a position as a director of Woodside. In 2014 the Court ordered Australia to stop spying on East Timor. But the career of those who authorised the bugging of the East Timorese cabinet went from strength to strength.
- ASIS bugged the family of the Indonesian President. Tony Abbott refused to apologise An apology would upset our security club
- Man Haron Monis of Lindt Café infamy, was interviewed many times by ASIO. The national security hotline received 18 calls about the behaviour of Monis and his threats. But Monis was found by ASIO not to be a threat.
- ASIO was a major blockage in our accepting the 12,000 Syrian/Iraqi refugees announced by Tony Abbott in September 2015. Canada accepted more than double the number of refugees that we accepted from and they did it much more quickly.
- And now we have the assumed parliamentary supervisor of ASIO giving a heads up to an old SAS colleague, the head of ASIO about a speech he would make attacking China and keeping his Prime Minister in the dark. That is remarkable. It is the cosy and incestuous security world in action for all to see and fear. And the SAS brotherhood in action. Scary!
My direct experiences of security agencies earlier in my career, and observation in recent years does not give me confidence in these agencies. Security officers are prone to a sense of superiority, that they are better informed, more patriotic and loyal than others. They attract more ‘odd bods’ than I have ever found in any other organisation I have ever worked for.
Too often ministers and officials invoke national security, relying in some instances on doubtful security advice. The media also allows itself to be silenced whenever the mantra ‘national security’ is rolled out.
And it is not just ministers and the media who are often misled by the security club dolling out tit bits of fact along with untested information and speculation.. With the increasing problem of terrorism around the world private terrorism and security consultants including at universities have been booming. It has become a major growth industry. I am yet to discover how one becomes a security expert! Many of them are former intelligence officers. Many have heavy dependence on news feeds from these agencies just like gullible journalists. When I see and hear so many of these so-called experts on terrorism and security, I do wonder how competent they are. It is becoming a very incestuous security and intelligence club.
Governments have introduced measures in attempts to supervise the performance and integrity of our security agencies, e.g. parliamentary committees and the Inspector-General of the agencies. But it is not at all clear how effective they are. All too often the minders of the agencies, like ministers, join the club.
In such an important and opaque field one would hope that the Opposition would be asking hard questions and preventing needless intrusions into our civil liberties. But not the ALP today
There will always be major difficulties and mistakes by organisations that work in secret and without proper checks. That is why we need extremely able and efficient means of supervision of security agencies. We have not got that today.
Perhaps supervision by three strong-willed and professional judges might be better than the failed supervision we presently have.