JOHN MENADUE   Our security agencies are not accountable.

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.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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5 Responses to JOHN MENADUE   Our security agencies are not accountable.

  1. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    I agree with John Menadue here that the performance and integrity of our security services is now a serious national problem. There are of course many good and honest people working in ASIO, but there are issues emerging now in senior management.

    All of the anti-China revelations leaked to media over the past couple of years, that have generated the moral panic in Federal Parliament leading to the ill-advised current foreign interference legislation now under consideration, bear the stamp of ASIO information-sourcing and/or US-origin anti-China intelligence. This is true of the Darwin port; the Dastyari case; and now Mr Hastie’s denunciation under privilege of a Chinese Australian businessman. All involve a source mindset hostile to the Government of China, and some explicitly bear a ’made in USA’ brand. Does not ASIO senior management see that ASIO might be being played by US intelligence agencies against China? That is one of the first questions I would ask, if I were sitting in Duncan Lewis’s chair.

    I took part in a non-partisan Chinese Community Councils Forum in Sydney recently, on a panel with Geraldine Doogue and John Fitzgerald. I was struck by the evident concern of decent Chinese Australians in the Forum, about the climate of anti-Chinese suspicion that is being generated by these sorts of intelligence-sourced activities and questions. Respected members of the Chinese- Australian community feel, with justice, that they are being effectively asked to ‘prove their innocence’. We need to step back from this trend.

    .John Menadue is right that there are particular problems for agencies which operate in secret and with few public checks. There is no effective supervision in the public interest, and Labor is prudently lying low to avoid the risk of wedging. Bob Carr and Geoff Raby are carrying the public heat.

    Let me share a little of my personal experiences and concerns as a retired senior dipliomat . I have never asked if I have an ASIO file. To my knowledge I have never done anything since my retirement from DFAT in 1998 to justify ASIO opening one on me, but I might be surprised. I was recently disparaged in an article in a reputable online journal as one of a group of ‘Putinists, contrarians and instant experts’ (no name, but the context fitted me), written by a former member of the intelligence and security club. I have been warned by friends to ‘ be more careful’ in my public writing . Where is this coming from, I wonder? It only began when I started writing about Russia and China.

    Over the past four or five years I have been publicly advocating that Australia should be working for mutually respectful and mutually advantageous diplomatic relations with Russia and China, the two major world powers outside the western alliance system to which Australia belongs. Both are major nuclear powers with capacity to destroy Australia along with the rest of the world in any major power war.

    Both advocate normal diplomatic relations with all countries, based on mutual courtesy and respect for national sovereignty. Both these qualities have been lacking on our side . This needs to be said: I consider that Australian foreign policy towards Russia and China for some years now has become needlessly rude, clumsy and provocative, as has been United States and British foreign policy towards these nations and their diplomatic representatives. I express these views freely in Australia, as a loyal Australian citizen. I will continue to do so.

    Australia’s relations with Russia and China are worsening by the day . The whiff of McCarthyism is very much in the air again in our country, decades after the Cold War ended in 1991. On the scandalous Skripal Affair; the war in Syria; the war in Ukraine, the MH17 shootdown, and Crimea; the South China Sea dispute; allegations of Russian interference in US elections, or Chinese interference in Australia, and the new draft foreign influence legislation – I see an intolerance of and contempt for dissenting views, provoking in some areas of the media a fear of engaging with those like myself who express such views.

    This concerns me as a loyal Australian. I have to say in fairness that I was courteously received by the PJCIS recently, under Mr Hastie’s chairmanship, to discuss my concerns on the foreign influence draft legislation – my testimony is in PJCIS Hansard.

    John Menadue’s essay is very timely and true. Thanks for sticking your neck out, John .

  2. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    Thank you for drawing attention to the role of our security/intelligence agents. I’m at a dark as to how they operate, and what values and commitments they hold.

    It is hard to know whether how far we can trust our security/intelligence agents when we know so little about how they operate and what values and commitments they hold.

  3. Avatar Vincent Cheok says:

    John Menadue,
    So refreshingly revealing your ‘as a matter of fact’ personal account or recount of the ineptitude of our Australian secret services.
    And how demonstrative it is of our Ministers or Heads of Departments being so obsequiously subservient to their arrogant dictates. Our Westminster system is however predicated on our Parliament being supreme, not our secret services as if they were Gestapo or KGB, or we will end up like the U.S. where, if what the obsequious YouTube videos tell us is true, is run by a military cum banking Deep State cartel.
    You have the credentials and the credibility for the general public to take your word as objective and independent.
    That is of course not taking away how a good and efficient and competent secret and intelligence service has a vital role to play in our national security and interest – but not solely militarily as seeing a terrorist in every Muslim or anybody that is not white Anglo-Saxon.
    On a broader scope National Security encompasses all threats to the ongoing stability and harmony of our diverse socio-economic-political make-up or profile.
    Vincent Cheok

  4. Avatar R. N. England says:

    There is some hope here. In countries like Australia where the capitalist ethos prevails, government has ceded most of its power to corporations. The anti-China campaign of the “security services” runs counter to the interests of those Australian corporations which trade with the most vibrant economy in the world. The “security services” are in most respects a propaganda outlet for the anglo-culture’s arms industry which is centred in the USA. The vested interests that ultimately determine Australian government policy are split. There is no guarantee that the US arms industry will win in Australia if they seriously threaten the profits of the Australian mining industry, the industries which provide Australians with Chinese manufactured goods, the education industry which depends on the fee-paying children of China’s rich, and QANTAS which ferries increasing numbers of people between Australia and China.

    • Avatar paul frijters says:

      I think you’re essentially right on this one. It will be an interesting show to watch. One corrupt rent-seeking cabal against another.
      Don’t underestimate the interests of the property and finance industries in this one either. They too are pro-Chinese. They don’t want the flood of Chinese students or tax-evading dollars to dry up.

      Indeed, when you think of it, ASIO only has the Americans in their corner. A formidable ally, for sure, but the fact that ASIO feels compelled to bypass the PM and his deputy smacks of over-reach. They might be about to get their wings clipped….

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