ASIO Doublespeak

A party member lives under the eyes of the Thought Police:

He can be inspected without warning and without knowing that he is being inspected;

He should live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors…..

Last month ASIO set up a Twitter account with the stated objective of being more open and transparent.

Launching the account, the Director General of Security, Mike Burgess, said ASIO had toyed with the idea of tweeting ‘no comment’ and following this up with ‘and that’s off the record’.”

But keen to dispel any notion that ASIO was a shadowy, unaccountable organisation he said they’d decided against it. He said ASIO would “welcome the Australian public engaging with us”.

What he did not say on Twitter was anything of value. He did not tweet that three weeks earlier ASIO had led an AFP raid on the home and offices of NSW MP Shaoquett Moselmane and his staffer John Zhang and simultaneously harassed four Chinese journalists and two academics.

In setting up the Twitter account, Mr Burgess said he had a strong personal belief in being as open and transparent as possible. That would be a hallmark of his time as Director-General.

Although no on-the-record press conference was conducted to tell us what the Moselmane raids were all about, TV cameras were on the scene to record the event and provide sufficient media coverage to tarnish Moselmane’s name and lead to his suspension from the Labor Party.

No contemporaneous coverage was given of the raids on the Chinese journalists and academics that happened on the same day as the Moselmane raids. There was no announcement and no explanation.

And when we found out weeks later (as a result of Chinese media reports), ASIO’s response was to tell us: “As is long-standing practice, ASIO does not comment on intelligence matters.”

It seems then that the only difference between Mr Burgess and his predecessors is that he claims to be open and transparent and isn’t, while his predecessors accepted that ASIO was a shadowy, secretive, unaccountable organisation and were honest about it.

His Twitter announcement is a perfect example of 1984’s blackwhite — impudently claiming that black is white in contradiction of the plain facts.

What would an open and transparent organisation tell us?

First of all, what alleged crime is being investigated? Were the Chinese journalists suspected of being spies? Had they accessed some secret files?

If so, go for it ASIO/AFP. Prosecute them.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Anthony Galloway says the Chinese journalists were part of a WeChat group linked to Moselmane’s office. Galloway, who among others appears to have had some sort of background briefing, says the ASIO/AFP investigation is probing whether there was a plot to influence Australian politics through Moselmane and former staffer Zhang.

According to ABC Investigations‘ Sean Rubinsztein-Dunlop and Echo Hui, the AFP is investigating whether the Chinese consulate in Sydney conspired with Zhang in a plot to infiltrate the Labor Party and influence voters. The Sydney Consulate told the ABC that accusations it engaged in infiltration activities were totally baseless and nothing but vicious slanders.

Zhang, a 62-year-old Chinese-Australian community leader and eyewear importer who has been photographed with, among others, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, is challenging the investigation and the foreign interference laws in the High Court.

Under the foreign interference laws it’s a crime to engage in “covert, deceptive and threatening actions” on behalf of a foreign government.

Burgess has explained that foreign interference “is about covertly shaping decision-making to the advantage of a foreign power”. Left unchecked, he said it became highly corrosive. Almost every sector of our community was a potential target, particularly Australian parliamentarians and their staff; government officials; the media and opinion-makers; business leaders; and the university community.

I have to confess that over the years I’ve talked to Chinese journalists, including those from Xinhua based in Canberra. I even had one, with his wife, over to my place for Christmas dinner some time in the 1980s. I have not the slightest doubt that at times I tried to influence them and they tried to influence me.

Similarly it would have been the job of Australian journalists who were based in China to talk to Chinese of all professions and trades and I expect that at times they would have sought to try to persuade them in one way or another.

ASIO and the AFP didn’t prosecute, but it seems that the “crime” the Chinese journalists supposedly committed was talking to Australians, expressing opinions and, shock/horror, perhaps defending their country and its government’s policies. For that crime, 90% of the world’s foreign correspondents could be convicted.

I’m not privy to the WeChat conversations but perhaps they challenged commonly held perceptions. They might have recalled a little Chinese history reminding participants that Chinese governments going back as far as the anti-communist republican Chiang Kai-Shek regarded Taiwan as part of China. They might have reminded them that Hong Kong was ceded to Britain as a colony as a result of British military action to assert Britain’s “right” to sell opium to China.

They might have pointed out that Australia currently has a host of anti-dumping actions mounted against Chinese goods, including copy paper, aluminium extrusions, aluminium zinc coated steel, ammonia nitrate, stainless steel sinks, grinding balls, silicon metal and wind towers. They might have pointed out that contrary to media reports, Chinese action alleging Australian barley dumping began in November 2018 and was not taken in response to Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s Trump-driven 2020 call for a non-WHO independent investigation into the origins of Covid 19.

They might have challenged the Australian media characterisation of every Chinese action as belligerent, a word Channel 9’s Chris Uhlmann used as far back as June 2014, when working for the ABC and questioning the then prime minister Tony Abbott before a visit to Indonesia.

The foreign interference laws are a variant of the agent of influence notion that periodically rears its head and reached its heights in the 1950s when US Senator Joseph McCarthy drove campaigns against alleged communists. This type of thinking led security and intelligence agencies to target Australian anti-Vietnam war campaigners exercising their democratic right to oppose the war. Protesters were accused of acting on behalf of foreign interests and ASIO opened files on many Australian activists.

The notion re-emerged in 1983 when senior Labor Party official David Combe had pre-election drinks with Soviet diplomat Valery Ivanov and in 2016 when The Weekend Australian‘s Greg Sheridan told us that the federal cabinet had been briefed on Chinese government-sponsored networks of influence. Sheridan explained: “These are people not doing anything illegal, and in some respects may not be doing anything wrong, but intelligence identifies them as acting directly on behalf of the Chinese government in furthering Beijing’s strategic objectives.”

At that time, debating, arguing and seeking to persuade others was not illegal. Our democracy, it seems, was robust enough to withstand having people pushing different points of view in private and public discussion.

But not any more. In passing the foreign inference laws our politicians have decided that we are not adult enough to talk to foreigners or listen to their points of view. Our intelligence agencies have taken up Big Brother’s directives with glee.

According to the ABC, the AFP alleges that Zhang and others who communicated in the chat group and “other fora … concealed from or failed to disclose to Moselmane that they were acting on behalf of or collaborating with Chinese State and Party apparatus”, including the United Front Work Department and China’s leading spy agency, the Ministry of State Security. The AFP warrants define the communications on the chat group since July last year as “covert”, potentially making them a crime under the foreign interference legislation.

Now Moselmane may not be Sherlock Holmes but I would think he could work out that someone from the Chinese consulate represents Chinese interests. I’m no secret agent but WeChat, with its one billion users, doesn’t seem to me to be the best place to conduct clandestine activities.

According to the ABC, one of the warrants executed in June identified prominent academic Professor Chen Hong, a leading Chinese Government-aligned critic of Australia’s foreign policy, as a suspected co-conspirator. Moselmane organised functions at NSW’s Parliament House, where he and Professor Chen gave speeches filmed by Chinese state-run media about the rise of China.

Professor Chen and a second leading Chinese academic have now been banned from Australia because ASIO assessed them to be risks to national security.

In the old days, when professors lectured and presented alternative views, it was called “academic freedom”. Not any more.

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Paul Malone is a journalist and author with over 30 years of experience having worked for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial  Review and the Canberra Times, where he was Political Correspondent for five years and wrote a weekly column until late 2017. His latest book Kill the Major – The true story of the most successful Allied guerrilla war in Borneo will be released in July

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