Australia’s secretive defence establishment: the real enemies of truth and freedom

Sep 19, 2023
Intelligence agencies

Australia, with fewer secrets to hide, is more compulsively secretive than the US, China or NATO.

General Angus Campbell is concerned about “truth decay” and artificial intelligence, worried that eventually citizens of this country will be unable to sift fact from fiction. Countries such as Russia were using disinformation as a weapon of statecraft in America and Britain, and engaging in campaigns that could increasingly be used to fracture “the trust that binds us,” he told a seminar organised by Australian Strategic Policy Institute last week.

I share some of his concerns but, while thinking him sincere, consider he has a bit of a hide saying this. There is a serious problem with foreign propaganda and discerning the truth in the modern world. But the biggest part of the problem, and the starting point for considering what we may do about it, is the public’s incapacity to know, understand or believe anything much that the Australian government, and the Australian Defence Force, puts out about defence matters. It is rather more difficult to sort truth from fiction supposedly coming from the enemy when one has no idea about the reliability of what we are being told by our own. And not much reason to believe anything much they say either.

There are different facets of the problem. There are leaders such as General Campbell himself who are deeply opposed to allowing the media, or other independent observers, anywhere near Australia defence forces in combat zones. Even if many of our defence writers are very gung-ho about war, its toys and our leading defence personalities, many have little security consciousness and might well unwittingly give away important tactical information in battle situations. Or, alternatively, the enthusiastic coverage might nonetheless convey critical information to other players in the game of statecraft.

General Campbell, for example, got his first big lift-up in 2013 when new Immigration minister Scott Morrison wanted a three-star officer to lead a military response to boat people. It consisted first, of trying to repel asylum seeker on boats back to the country from which they had departed, usually Indonesia or Sri Lanka. If the interception and the push-back failed, the operation, known as Sovereign Borders, was to convey the asylum seekers to foreign concentration camps, where they were to be held either until some other nation would take them, or the detainees gave up and asked to be repatriated.

A secretive defence establishment does not promote a well-informed and engaged citizenry

Freshly given his third star, General Campbell, against what I have been explicitly told was defence department advice, “suggested” to his minister that all interception operations be clothed in utmost secrecy. The argument was that people smugglers were very astute observers of Australian political and military events. They read signals, especially signals about Australia’s resolution to carry on. The best tactic was to deny them as much information as possible, preventing them from deducing the presence of Australian naval or border patrol ships, or the intelligence they were using, from the sky, on the ground, and from communications interceptions.

Being able to refuse to discuss all operational aspects of boat repulsions and interceptions – including often even the fact that they had occurred – suited the political interests of the Abbott government to a T. It knew that the invasion of asylum seekers – which it was trying to dehumanise by falsely calling them illegal entrants – was popular, to a point in the community. But it knew that the population would become increasingly squeamish if they were allowed to understand just how Australia was rounding up ships and dragging them back to where they came from. The Campbell “on-water matters” alibi was critical to the success of Operation Sovereign Borders. But that was not because it put people smugglers in the dark. It was because it put Australians in the dark.

It is curious that even now, 10 years after these deeds done in Australia’s name, there has been no official account, or critical inside review of what occurred. The secrecy has extended longer than after WWI or II, Korea, or even Vietnam. Defence doesn’t seem comfortable about its place in history anymore. Australians must suspect that the official histories of Australia’s participation in post-1990 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be critical of whether our participation made any positive difference to the (unhappy) outcomes. Not a single communique from the front, and hardly a single speech from an Australian senior official would be of the slightest use in making such an assessment. All that material, other than reports of deaths in action, was short on fact or verifiable information, and long on propaganda, unjustified optimism and wind. And if it was much better informed by journalism on the ground, whether by Australians or others, that mostly occurred without much help from the Defence Department.

But there are at least some records of these two ill-fated military adventures against which a temperature can be taken. The official history of Operation Sovereign Borders will have few facts, other than self-serving “official” facts to be checked against other evidence. No doubt many of the sailors involved did what they were told in an exemplary way, just as the soldiers involved in the Intervention into Aboriginal communities in 2006 and 2007 did. But that does not tell us anything of what was achieved, whether it was worth the cost, and whether everything that happened, including intelligence operations on the ground, involved things of which Australians can be proud. My strong suspicion is that the chronic secrecy hides a lot of official guilt.

The same attitude of mind in Defence can be seen over the prosecution of David McBride for betraying national security secrets. McBride saw evidence that ADF people, including SAS soldiers, were committing war crimes in Afghanistan. He did everything he could to draw it to attention through the “right channels” without going public. He was finally persuaded either that senior commanders and defence and intelligence officials either did not care or were more concerned with covering matters up than taking proper action. At that stage, he became an external whistleblower, by giving his evidence to the ABC, putting the matter in the public domain. It was only later that the creaky defence machinery, moving at glacial speed without evident enthusiasm, was seen to be responding. And it was years and years before the public was to discover, officially through an investigation headed by General Paul Brereton that there was substance in the allegations, and that they seemed to have been systemic rather than very rare exceptions. Even more alarmingly, many of the Australian officer class engaged in Afghanistan were blissfully unaware of what junior soldiers were doing but were effectively covering it up by furious denials that anything wrong had, or could have, occurred. It involved military mismanagement right up to commander levels.

McBride did not leak sensitive secrets of state, vital to protecting our national interest. He leaked evidence of malfeasance and murder, after his superiors seemed to be refusing to do anything about it. In that sense, he is more the hero than a good many officers given awards for their leadership in Afghanistan. But he gets no credit from the ADF establishment, nor from the defence and national security bureaucracy. Nor from its legal bureaucracy, right up to the Labor Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, who has tried to market himself as a supporter of whistleblower legislation, but who has refused to intervene in how his department is managing the prosecution. Dreyfus, apparently, is worried that dropping national security prosecutions, even for dodgy cases, might send a message around that the government does not take seriously the protection of secrets that matter.

McBride’s revelations may have done short-term damage to Australia’s international reputation, and the standing of the ADF among Australians. But the truth would have emerged ultimately anyhow, because far too many knew the shameful story. Our allies knew, not from the information swapped between allied officers, but from alarmed reports from their own military and intelligence systems. In the long run, it will have done us more good, in national and international standing, that we are now, albeit 10 years later, trying to address the problem rather than continuing to cover it up. Likewise, one of the few officers who smelled a rat, Captain Andrew Hastie (now a Liberal MP) deserves more credit for his sense of honour in pursuing his suspicions than most of his colleagues, who, though responsible for their men, were ignorant or didn’t want to know.

Australia, with fewer secrets to hide, is more compulsively secretive than the US, China or NATO

These are but two examples of the open-government instincts of the defence department. Whether as an armed force, or as a military bureaucracy, it is more compulsively secretive than any of Australia’s allies, including Britain, the United States, and NATO. Other defence organisations train and trust their agencies and officials to engage with the general population, and to participate in debates on policy and strategy. They do not routinely censor anything emanating from within their departments capable of suggesting that there are different points of view, that there are live debates about strategy and tactics. The virus has now also struck our politicians with Anthony Albanese being, if anything, more secretive than Scott Morrison, most recently on a climate change report. In Australia, many FOI requests are stymied. It is virtually impossible to get unsanitised administrative detail about procurement stuff-ups, or about the unhealthy and unregulated revolving door between officials, officers, defence industry and consultants.

Much the same problem occurs once one attempts to factor in the defence work of national security agencies. One good example of where Australians miss out might be seen from a recent paper on China issued by the Intelligence and security committee of the British Parliament. The 207- page report ( deals with how and why the British intelligence establishment regards China as the greatest national security threat it faces, even though it admits that Britain is only incidentally in China’s sights. It discusses what it thinks to be China’s aims and ambitions, and why Britain is of interest to China. It discusses China’s search for political influence and economic advantage, and the whole-of-state approach of China’s intelligence services, its alleged involvement in human espionage and its cyber operations. It discusses alleged efforts to influence or interfere with government, elections, the media and the Chinese diaspora in the UK. It gives a case history of attempts to get involved commercially in the British civil nuclear energy sector that shows open investment activity accompanied by some clandestine interventions. It also deals at some length with how the British government and its intelligence establishment are dealing with some of the problems.

One should not be too surprised that there is little explicit discussion of AUKUS, of nuclear submarines of technology exchange, whether with Australia or the US. That’s because the assessment that China is an ultimate enemy does not depend on particular Chinese belligerence or its rearmament, but a deduction about its being an enemy because of its commercial ambitions, its recognition that America and China are in fundamental competition, and the threat the US could pose to China’s central consideration: the maintenance of the power of the Communist party. Even those who doubt that China is planning war on the US, or that it will act against Taiwan or in the South China sea that will cause war, might find little to disagree with about the security assessment. That China spies on its neighbours, its avowed enemies, and its commercial partners occasions no great surprise. The US, Britain, Australia and a host of others spy on China too. We all affect to dislike spying on us, and express horror at the idea that some of our citizens might be assisting them, or might, for their own commercial reasons, support some Chinese aims. Some of these might cross the line into espionage – the conscious handing of security sensitive information to a foreign power. But not every exchange of commercial or political information is intrinsically treacherous, regardless of what the Director-General of ASIO might think. Nor is everyone who doubts his apocalyptic warnings or his judgment an agent of influence.

Likewise, there has always been a good deal of open American military and intelligence material of a sort that would be routinely classified in Australia. One will, for example, easily find out more about Australian defence procurements from open-sourced assessments by the US General Accounting Office (equivalent to our national audit office) and the congressional reporting service than is ever published by government in Australia. As often as not, Defence will be obdurately resisting FOI or other disclosure on national security grounds even after it is shown to be published in America. This is never to keep knowledge of it from a potential enemy; it is to keep it a secret from Australians.

Relentless propaganda against China and preparing the ground for war

A third sort of knowledge vacuum and risk from misinformation, disinformation and outright lying comes from establishments inside the military and intelligence system that devote their activities towards propagandising for war and an extremely hawkish attitude towards China. It is not merely a matter of persuasion about the soundness of nuclear submarines or other defence equipment for Australia’s defence needs. It is about creating a climate of opinion in which Australia identifies its interests as being America’s and shares right-wing American perspectives and intentions about China. There are ideologues in Australian government who are, for all intents and purposes, agents of the US with transferred loyalties.

As General Campbell comments, healthy and functioning societies such as ours depend upon a well-informed and engaged citizenry. But we are increasingly living in a post-truth world where perceptions and emotions often trump facts. He said that Russia had wielded disinformation “as a weapon of statecraft in the lead-up to the 2016 US election and the Brexit referendum. What set Russian campaigns apart was the use of novel technologies to enhance the scale, speed and spread of their efforts.

“By feeding and amplifying untruths and fake news on social media via the use of bots, troll farms, and fake online personas, the Russians attacked American and British democracy, highlighting distrust, sowing discord, and undermining faith in key institutions,” the Guardian’s report of his speech said. Such operations had “the potential to fracture and fragment entire societies so that they no longer possess the collective will to resist an adversary’s intentions.”

True, no doubt, but he is almost certainly understating what we do to ourselves. Most of the fake news in circulation in the US – feeding, for example, conspiracy theories about vaccines and stolen elections – is home grown, not of Russian or Chinese origin. The major damage being done to western institutions has been the conscious work of people such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Scott Morrison. The distrust, discord and loss of faith which is so evident is not to be laid at the doors of our international enemies, real or imagined. A good deal of the local effort in breaking down institutions has been the conscious effort of ideologues trying to impose smaller government and operating with neoliberal economic theories.

Anyone wanting a sample of what we ourselves can do, need consider only arguments and misrepresentations coming from the referendum on the Voice. I have not heard it suggested, even by the usual suspects, that they are being framed in Beijing or Moscow, or even Washington. Pogo once declared that “we have met the enemy and he is us.” In the battle for truth and open and accountable government, General Campbell might be better focused on getting Australia’s house in order rather than in imagining any Australian capacity to reform and transform our enemies. It could be his Glencoe.

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