ASIO needs a boss who can stand above the tumult

Mar 5, 2024
ASIO's. Office building in the Parliamentary Triangle, Canberra Ben Chifley Building viewed from Mount Ainslie

At the height of the argument about western conviction that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 2002, Tony Blair’s minder, Alastair Campbell was accused of asking intelligence agencies to “sex up” what passed for evidence. The satirical magazine Private Eye published a cover with Alastair Campbell’s child asking, “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” Campbell replies, “I started it.”

If ever, as many are warning and some seem to hope, Australia gets involved with America in a war with China, the best candidate for being in a similar cartoon would be the Director-General of ASIO, Mike Burgess. It was Burgess who advised Malcolm Turnbull to ban the Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, from any sort of scientific partnership or research participation in the technology needed to create the 5G network. It is a Turnbull vanity that he was the first western leader to recognise the danger from China and the need to take a firm line with them.

Turnbull exported his idea, first to the US which was ever so happy to follow someone else’s lead on the subject, and then Britain, initially very hard to persuade. In due course a western consensus emerged which put pressure on other countries to exclude Huawei, under threat of being cut out themselves if they shared their toys with the Chinese company.

Though the ban has now been in place for years, we don’t know yet what the ultimate outcome will be. Technologically that is. Huawei, going by itself, may end up outpacing the west in 5G and 6G developments.

Politically, we know that we got a mighty pissed off Huawei and a mighty pissed off China. After a few more careful provocations devised (for God knows what reason) by the defence and intelligence community, China put significant and very damaging bans on Australia exports, including wine, barley, and coal.

The differential damage to Australia was of far greater proportion than any incident of the simultaneous trade war going on between China and the US. As our most loyal and dependable ally, the US of course went in and took Australia’s market share in the goods now banned. Our various calculated provocations, starting with Huawei ban, cost Australia billions that no other country had to pay. For a purpose yet unknown. It certainly didn’t hurt China, hostile, cranky or benign.

Burgess was at that stage head of the Australian Signals Directorate, where he had started his career. As an electrical engineer, he was more at the techno end, involved with how Australia and its Five Eyes partners used satellites to suck up electronic signals, even ones wrapped in sophisticated technology, and decode them. He was not at the analytical end, and, thus, though then senior, cannot be blamed for any analysis failures which saw ASD, like all our other intelligence agencies, fail Australian citizens by over-estimating weak intelligence about WMD in Iraq.

In this, the Australian agencies were very much like British and American ones, reading the data and feeling under political pressure to interpret it in ways that suited the political interests of the government of the day. Because ASD operations are so wrapped in secrecy, and most of the analysis of its product is done by other agencies, its poor performance did not get the open criticism that other agencies, such as the Office of National Assessments, received.

Burgess left ASD and went into the private sector, including advising Telstra about cyber-security, before coming back as Director General.

His advice to Turnbull was based on the fact – and fact it is – that the Chinese government can, at the end of the day, direct Huawei to pass over information sent on its networks. It has never been caught doing so (and would be if it did). But it could. In just the same way some folks reckon Australians and Americans should boycott TikTok, which is theoretically capable of gathering information about its consumers, most of whom, I understand, are teens.

Burgess’s advice over Huawei started China’s freeze with Australia.

Of course, Australia, the US, UK, and other western industrial countries could legally commandeer their telecommunications networks and require both private and public sector providers to hand over data on their customers. In Australia this includes, thanks to legislation ASD and other organisations asked for, the capacity to require services to provide the codes by which messages are encrypted.When or if it became necessary, everyone could sleep soundly at night knowing that the Australian intelligence community, and its overseas partners, most of whose activities even in Australia we cannot control, wouldn’t dream of abusing their powers. Couldn’t say the same thing about China, could we?

Twenty years ago, the ASD charter did not permit the electronic interceptions of domestic Australian chitchat. Now many exceptions have been carved out. ASD now listens to everyone just to prevent paedophiles sourcing pornography. It monitors electronic transfers of money just in case it’s going to terrorists (but not Israel) or organised crime. It does, or will be doing, warrant jobs for anti-corruption bodies. It is by no means clear that it has sufficient internal controls over what is done with the information gathered.

A few years back, the then head of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, was dreaming up an even bigger terrorism, intelligence, and international paedophilia-prevention empire, under his control. He came up with the idea that photographs on drivers’ licences, and forms of closed-circuit electronic surveillance could become a tool of spooks and cops that could blanket Australia. Every Australian face on file, able readily to be bio-identified by the geometry of their faces.

He wrote notes to his close friend, the other Mike, discussing what would be needed to build such a national security state. Because Pezzullo thought anything by him was by definition classified, or protected by his right to privacy, the note exchanges were unilaterally marked Top Secret.

Mike-the-other would have been in a good position to respond. After all most of the technology used to create China’s totalitarian mass surveillance state was developed in Australia, and no detail left our shore without scrutiny by our spooks. Some other countries, such as Britain have more CC cameras than China. They use them to track and intimidate criminals, terrorists, and little old ladies. The broad conception is simple, and the technology is now unsophisticated and cheap. It’s easy to do, provided one does not use Home Affairs management or computer expertise to set it up. If one wants such a system, that is. Nothing more completely showed the character of Pezzullo than his lust for such toys.

Someone didn’t like Mike Pezzullo’s daft and oppressive idea. Someone, probably high in politics or administration, leaked the correspondence – which government insisted had no official status and was not following up on any of their ideas. Pezzullo was outraged, called in the AFP, a body in his portfolio, peculiarly under his influence. AFP detectives promptly raided the relevant journalist’s underwear drawers, to loud outrage. Ultimately, by ministerial direction, the dogs were called off. Pezzullo was not repentant. Nor were the AFP, which, however, had been unable, as usual, to find the leaker.

That Burgess was a party to this correspondence invited many questions about his judgment and, in particular, his suitability to be head of ASIO, an organisation which is supposed to balance delicate matters such as the defence of Australia against spies and terrorists with respect for human rights, and the right of people to think and say, if not do, what they like. Somehow the idea of mass surveillance, mass eavesdropping, and maximum capacity of government to intervene in citizen’s lives did not show ASIO as the guardian of our liberties in the manner one might like.

Bodies like ASIO can be effective only if people trust their leaders.

In times past, bodies such as ASIO have been able to secure popular assent to their work, despite a good deal of suspicion, because it has had outside leaders of known reputation and integrity. I personally think the national security garotte ought to be closer to the neck than would Dennis Richardson, former diplomat, and head of defence. But I respect him – including his independence from government and capacity to talk straight to government. When he was head of ASIO I was not inclined to see something sinister in everything he, or it, was doing.

I do not impugn Mike Burgess’s integrity, but he does not have the background, or the public trust, to play a similar role. He comes from the dark side without ever having had to demonstrate much respect for the balances with democratic freedoms. He has an appetite for personal publicity and is building a profile. But he doesn’t convincingly give the impression that he rates personal freedom and dignity as highly as ever-expanding surveillance power. His record of always being in the parliamentary queue ever seeking more secret and not-very-accountable power means that the presumption of regularity does not travel with the job title.

But it’s his mature judgment that I doubt, if only from years of reading his pronouncements. He does not persuade, whether by homely anecdote or flat assertion. Even more so when he has become, willy nilly, a major political player with an agenda of his own. He’s one of the big Cassandras, warning of the threat of China and Chinese spies, and then playing coy about naming China as the source of all evils. Or in giving only limited information and saying no harm, no fault because no one was identified.

While doing so, he has impugned the loyalty of many doubters, including me. He has said many things that are not accurate summaries of the social compact and the rights and role of dissent in a democracy. He takes as read, for example, an assumption that the law extends to anyone he judges to be an agent of influence, even when their sincerely held views are not directed by any foreign power.

The mere fact that sections of the intelligence community have convinced themselves that China is, in secret, an enemy plotting against us does not make this a consensus. Many well-informed Australians in business, government, foreign affairs, and academia think the received wisdom is nonsense. Dangerous nonsense. Rather than alerting Australians to serious threats to our national security interests he may be spreading unnecessary panic and alarm and undermining his agency’s capacity to be trusted.

Burgess has, it seems, no problem with the way that some controversial countries, such as Israel and Taiwan conduct regular seminars and conferences, attended by senior Australian politicians, lobbyists, and officials. When he first spoke of such a conference I thought he was talking about a Taiwan conference. When he spoke of political figures discussing party factional brawls, and sources of power in their party, I assumed he was talking of Bill Shorten or any number of other Labor figures speaking freely with CIA contacts, as shown by Wikileaks. He wasn’t in both cases. You must be a putative enemy to warrant Burgess’s notice. Frankly, I do not regard such interchanges as inherently sinister, and think that ASIO is, (as it showed in the 1983 Combe -Ivanov case) naïve about life in the real world. But Taiwanese and Israeli spooks are active in the conference and interchanges they organise, just as I assume the Chinese (or, say, the Indonesians) are. They want to know what Australian perceptions and intentions are.

They are interested in our technology and our inventions, and given half a chance will, like the Americans, the English, the Germans, or the French, steal our intellectual property. They want access and influence to sources of power. They use the equivalent of lobbyists and intermediaries, often actual lobbyists, and pay for it. They seek to compromise players with gifts, and sometimes sexual companions. In this their intentions may be sinister, but their behaviour is much the same as local and international corporations, or nations seeking access to our markets. Whether espionage or cosying up, the activity often shows our ruling class in a very unattractive and very compromisable light. A number of former Australia ministers, up to prime ministers, have attended phony seminars by phony organisers, where they have been given phoney awards and handsome speaking fees.

It is a commonplace that allies – France, Britain, and the US, for example, spy on us, often doing us damage. On one occasion British intelligence spied on and conducted intelligence operations against Australian companies competing with British companies for enormous engineering contracts in another country. On other occasions, Israel has given its intelligence agents (forged?) Australian passports when conducting hostile operations abroad. Friends should not do that, but when they do, do not expect that Burgess will call them out, or grandstand about it with homely tales having nothing to do with the modern ASIO.

An increasingly illiberal ASIO, now under the control of Burgess, has seriously damaged international scientific cooperation with China, including in developing technology we could be exploiting together without any threat to peace. We are not doing this lest China abuse our hospitality, but to be bastards to China.

Nothing Australia can do can significantly hurt China or stall its progress.

ASIO should give up imagining theoretical ways that some transaction or exchange could lower our trousers.

Around Australia thousands of business operators, including billionaires and would be politicians, spend money associating themselves with good causes so that they can build up allies and friends from whom they can ask favours. Some of the favours asked, for example, by foreign mining companies, including significant recriminalisation of the right to protest, and easy access to Australian espionage product on our neighbours. I’m all for having Australians register as foreign agents, if they are, maintaining a close eye on how source countries spy on and attempt to influence émigré populations, including students. In this respect however ASIO should be a little more even handed over coercion by such governments, given the conduct of some nations closer to hand.

The late Tony Ayers, one of the outstanding public servants of the past 50 years, used to tell his proteges that they would be remembered, if at all, only by the calibre of people they appointed or promoted into top jobs. “Good leaders pick good people,” he said. “Almost invariably, duds pick duds.”

Burgess was selected for the ASIO job by Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton, neither of whom have ever demonstrated talent (or example) in choosing public service leaders. That speaks for itself. Australians need more jealous and critical guardians of their liberties, being seen to defend them rather than focusing on how they could be — maybe should be — swept away. Trust can’t be taken for granted. The organisation deserves some regard for the fact that many of its staff seem to show the common sense and restraint that its leader seems to lack.

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