Intelligence is the servant of policy, not its substitute

Jack Waterford has provided a scathing assessment of the role of the intelligence and security agencies in Australia’s current contretemps with China. How should we evaluate the suggestion that the conduct of our international relations is driven more by intelligence than it is by policy?

Once upon a time, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation was a bunch of dedicated fellows, mostly WW2 veterans and friends of Brigadier Charles Spry, who tried to catch Soviet spies. They didn’t catch very many. As they used to say in Sir Charles’s day, “it’s a long time between drinks”. But the long wait between victories was worth the prize: Petrov defected in 1954, Skripov was declared persona non grata in 1962 and Ivanov in 1983. And the Czech Consul-General defected in 1969, though that was in the context of the “Prague Spring”.

In between counter lunches at the now defunct City and Overseas Club in St Kilda Road, ASIO operatives found time to keep an eye on members of the Communist Party of Australia, and always knew where to find its national secretary Laurie Aarons. They also monitored suspicious-looking people like Professor Manning Clark, Bishop Burgmann’s daughter Meredith and left-wing unionists and politicians like the Gietzelt brothers, Arthur and Ray. Like the Labor stalwart Tom Uren, who had been a POW on the Burma railway, the Gietzelts were also WW2 veterans. But unlike the ASIO operatives, they were not regular church-goers, so they had to be watched.

When they wanted to know something, ASIO’s operatives followed their target around, kept notes and filed them. And if a nudge in the right direction was required, there’d be a bit of persuasion over a glass of afternoon tea or, if a sense of occasion was in order, over dinner at the ‘The Heroes Club’ – the Toorak RSL in Clendon Road.

In the olden days, ASIO had no powers. It didn’t even have a statute to give its activities a measure of lawfulness. All it could do was conduct surveillance, tap a few telephones under warrant, open a few letters (also under warrant), liaise with the Special Branches of the State and Territory police forces and talk to counterpart organisations in the UK, the US, Europe and parts of South East Asia. So it went about its business quietly, discreetly, largely unobserved (except when the Attorney made an unannounced visit), keeping the country safe from espionage and subversion.

And it appeared to enjoy its modest successes from time to time. While its successes seemed to coincide with elections, which add a measure of political piquancy to its role, it didn’t appear to have much of an impact on foreign or defence policy. After Petrov’s defection, the Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations with Canberra and expelled Australia’s diplomats from Moscow. But that was an acceptable, if not welcome, political risk for Prime Minister Menzies. And the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1959 was hardly the product of ASIO’s advice. The Department of External Affairs and the Department of Trade would have pushed for that.

Now, however, ASIO has powers – quite a lot of them. ASIO’s Director-General has told us that the threat from terrorism remains unacceptably high (is there an acceptably high level, but that’s quibbling) and that the current threat from espionage and foreign interference is greater now than it was at the height of the Cold War. No one is quite sure when the height of the Cold War occurred, and there is no publicly available evidence for any of the Director-General’s assertions. But how could there be? It’s all classified.

So, if everything is so fraught, why haven’t any spies been apprehended and expelled? (Julie Bishop’s expulsion of two Russian ‘spies’ in 2018 was in support of Theresa May’s response to attempted assassination rather than a response to spying.) China has had an embassy in Canberra since 1973, with consulates in the larger state capitals. There can be only three possible explanations: ASIO has been deskilled and can’t catch spies any longer; the Chinese spies’ tradecraft is exceptional; or what the Chinese diplomats are doing is within the 1961 Vienna Convention, which affords wide latitude.

With all its additional funding, it surely cannot be possible that ASIO is no longer up to the task. Heaven forbid! To judge from some of the more ham-fisted examples of Chinese diplomacy observable in various parts of the world, their tradecraft doesn’t appear to be all that advanced. So maybe they’re operating within the boundaries of what’s diplomatically acceptable.

There has been some excitement nonetheless: Prime Minister Hawke offered asylum to some 42,000 Chinese students in response to the Tiananmen square massacre in 1989; a junior Chinese consular official attempted to ‘defect’ in 2005 (he and his family were granted protection visas); riding on the back of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, a self-confessed ‘spy’ sought asylum in Australia in 2019, only to have his assets frozen by the NSW Supreme Court early in 2020 in relation to accusations of fraud (no one seems to know whether this case is for real); and also in 2019 an alleged Chinese ‘spy’ turned car dealer seeking preselection for a federal parliamentary seat with $1 million in funding was found dead in his hotel room in strange circumstances.

These rather unusual incidents are consistent with strains in the bilateral relationship. But just how genuine the events in 2019 were remains to be determined. Foreign interference is always unacceptable, no matter who does it. But, as Michael Pascoe has commented, if Australia’s democracy is so fragile that it can be easily seduced by an authoritarian dictatorship, then the Sinophobes have grounds for their concerns.

The more nuanced comments by the DFAT Secretary, Frances Adamson, are germane.

The institutions we take for granted — our parliament, our democracy, our legal system, our freedom of speech and association — really are at stake now. This is not a theoretical threat or concept and we need to make sure our institutions are strong and that we can defend ourselves. And this is where the role of diplomacy comes into play.

This is the work of the policy departments. It is difficult to imagine that DFAT would have advised an ASIO ‘raid’ on Chinese journalists in June. It is equally difficult to imagine that DFAT would have advised the Foreign Minister to launch such an unsubtle commentary on China’s handling of the coronavirus and the need for an independent international inquiry during her ABC Insiders excursion on 19 April 2020.

And this really is the point: intelligence agencies may be good at intelligence. Right now, we don’t know. They may also be good at risk management. Again, we don’t know. But if the present preference of the intelligence agencies is risk aversion and risk avoidance, then they’re determining the nation’s foreign and security policy, and we do know that they are notoriously bad at policy. The government would do well to listen to listen to its diplomats before resorting to any more megaphone stridency. And the intelligence agencies should go quietly about their business.

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Allan Behm heads the International and Security Affairs Program at The Australia Institute, Canberra

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