ASIO is a Mickey Mouse outfit compromising 50 years of diplomacy with China

When head of the Australian Signals Directorate, Mike Burgess was the main adviser recommending against Huawei being allowed into the 5G network. There is no doubt about his intelligence background, or his technical talents. He has, however, yet to demonstrate in public that he has that first quality of the counter-intelligence officer and adviser — judgment.

As terrorism seemed to lose some of its thrall, ASIO came to remember that one of its core functions, somewhat on the back burner over much of this century, involves finding spies from other countries attempting to get hold of important secrets. It turns out that there has been a lot of it going on, both by our friends and our enemies.

China is enemy number one in this regard at the moment, and not only because it has been developing a huge technical capacity to monitor things Australian, but because about five per cent of the population here is of at least part-Chinese descent, and we have had, at least up to the pandemic, more than 100,000 Chinese nationals studying in our universities and research institutions, some able to be coerced into cooperation.

They are asked to pass on sensitive information: new technology, patents and inventions;  secret economic information, inside commercial information able to be exploited for profit, and political gossip giving insight into past or future events. Beyond this is the capacity to gain insights into broader Western alliance intelligence, defence information. And, increasingly, the very subjective business now obsessing modern security agencies — so-called “agents of influence”, people pushing opinions, not really their own, for the purpose of benefiting their secret client. China. Or America, or Spain, Japan or France, when it comes to a submarine contract. Such people — guns for hire, pretending that their earnest expressed opinions are their own, rather than paid for, are sometimes known as lawyers, lobbyists, think tanks, or, in social media, “influencers”.

At a time when Scott Morrison was under opposition pressure because of political and health department failures to protect elder Australians in nursing homes from the pandemic, he announced sweeping legislation designed to bring order to this whole secret influencing business, whether at Commonwealth, state or local government level, or in cooperative arrangements, of a sort the Commonwealth once strongly encouraged between universities and research institutions. The theory behind this legislation, predictably regarded as a masterstroke by The Australian and News.com organs, is that the cunning Chinese, and perhaps other nations, have infiltrated such arrangements so as to make China the chief beneficiary of secret information, perhaps even to pervert ostensibly worthy arrangements so that they have become secret organs of pro-China propaganda, or the cover behind which spies operate.

Our intelligence community knows quite a bit about the type of illegal and improper intelligence activity going on, whether being done by China, Russia or anyone else. It’s about looking for secrets — not the information exchange of diplomacy, the open academy, the perusal of the internet, officially published information or media comment, the stuff of most intelligence studies. We know, because we, like most other countries, do exactly the same as China is alleged to do, and not only in China. Indeed, the level of spying on China, including the monitoring of most of its signals traffic, is still thought to be far bigger and more comprehensive than China’s on us. But we also have Australian spies on the ground, others carefully monitoring movements of ships, armies, and significant assets; and others carefully analysing economic information, diplomatic relationships, political developments, living conditions, crops and military equipment. A good deal of the economic information, sanitised, is given to major companies to help plan their activities in China. Much of the intelligence they gather is informally shared with our own intelligence system.

China invests billions in spying on the world — though much more on the US, Russia, India and Japan than on Australia. The world spends more billions spying on it, and a good deal of what is gathered is shared with us. Because spooks tend to think that clandestinely gathered information is more likely to be true than publicly available information,  the premium paid for anything “secret” is high — though it has rarely demonstrated anything to be much different than it has seemed. The current alarm about a newly arrogant and aggressive China, for example, comes from public material, not from secret intelligence.

Is it hypocritical of us to be deeply critical of Chinese spying on us while we are doing the same to them? To regard one as aggressive and deeply criminal, while ours is simply prudent. Yes. There are some who will pretend a difference because Australia is a deeply virtuous country, committed to democratic norms and liberal ideas and humane ideals, while China is a deeply authoritarian nation, oppressing and sometimes murdering its citizens. ASIO this week pretended that it was deeply offensive and absurd to find any equivalence.

This week the last two Australian journalists working for Australian clients abruptly departed China, after being told they faced interviews about breaches of its national security. We all deplore this, of course. But soon we discovered that it was a tit for tat for two actions by ASIO. It began by a trademark AFP-ASIO raid, naturally in full and overstaffed SWAT mode. They descended, with a tipped-off pack of tame media, on a NSW Labor MP and one of his staffers, alleged, with no evidence on offer as yet, to be some sort of agent of influence operation.  Open conversations in the Chinese We-chat (their equivalent of Facebook) seem to have been involved.

We do know, of course, that Chinese businessmen, whom we can assume to be acting with the knowledge or direction of their governments, have been seeking to gain influence in our political parties, and to suborn some of our politicians, but the mere fact that some politicians have links with Chinese businessmen does not prove one to be a Chinese agent.

In June ASIO agents descended on four Chinese journalists and two Chinese academics, confiscating computers and, apparently, even some children’s toys. The suggestion was that the journalists, in news-gathering, may have crossed some line into what ASIO might regard as illegality — perhaps dealing with a leak, gathering information on some anti-Chinese government group, such as the Falun Gong. Likewise the academics, both well-known researchers and commentators, in both China and Australia, were told that ASIO had concluded they had crossed some line — evidence unstated — and must leave. Suggestions of something sinister in dealings with the Australian journalist — including one, who works for Chinese media, still effectively in detention in China — seemed in parallel with what had happened here.

At another time, kicking out supposed spies — Valeriy Ivanov, or Ivan Skipov — was announced by a prime minister or minister for foreign affairs. This one seems to have been a round-robin in home affairs. It was not obvious that foreign affairs or defence had been in the loop.

Was this a measure of ASIO’s flexing muscles as a new player in Australian foreign policy — kick-starting fresh rounds of hostilities with China? One can, after all, usually see the ASIO Director, Mike Burgess, around when there are fresh calls for action against our chief trading partner, even when its identity is unspoken. When head of Australian Signals Directorate, Burgess was the main adviser recommending against Huawei being allowed into the 5G network. There is no doubt about his intelligence background, or his technical talents. He has, however, yet to demonstrate in public that he has that first quality of the counter-intelligence officer and adviser — judgment.

Does the muscular display of Peter Dutton’s agencies (ASIO and the AFP, immigration and Home Affairs report to him) signal a new dawn of war against the communists by a real strongman? Perhaps, but I doubt that other ministers on the national intelligence committee would be, or should be, amused. Yet I think one would struggle to find an ASIO conspiracy. ASIO is almost incapable of that.

This is no disrespect to them as such. Insiders and outsiders in the intelligence system have a habit of imagining that the other side is omnipotent, able to do almost anything, including infiltrate moles at top levels, even as they themselves struggle and fail at almost anything they do. The truth is that ASIO, like (for example, Prime Minister and Cabinet, or the Health Department, to choose two topical examples) usually couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. That is not a result of sabotage, or enemy action, but of human nature, the Peter principle and confused objectives.

But if we needed some Mickey Mouse outfits to compromise 50 years of work in developing economic, political and cultural links with China and its government — in pursuit of some theory that we are acting to project and promote Australia’s interests — it would be hard to go past this shower.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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