QUENTIN DEMPSTER. Press Freedom – thank god for Annika Smethurst’s underwear drawer

Thank god for Annika Smethurst’s underwear drawer…. that’s all I can say. Never in the history of Australia’s battered democracy has the secret state and its understandably paranoid intelligence agencies been exposed by the undergarments of a Murdoch reptile.

When the AFP subjected Annika to a seven hour search warrant raid of her Canberra home, including rifling through her cook books and her underwear drawer, it managed to unite this country’s rivalrous media.  Well done AFP!

Rupert Murdoch, who once wouldn’t hesitate to sool his dirt diggers on to your garbage bins and voice mails to get a bit of commercially exploitable voyeuristic tittle tattle for his ranting rags, was reportedly affronted by the invasion of Annika’s privacy.

His News Corp Australasia chairman, Michael Miller, soon joined with the ABC’s new managing director David Anderson and Nine’s now all powerful CEO Hugh Marks to take a brave stand for freedom of the press.

Thanks to the AFP for this fortunate timing of their raids following references from the Australian Signals Directorate (in the first Smethurst raid) and Australian Security Intelligence Service (ASIS) in the case of the second search warrant raid of the ABC over what’s known as the Afghan files.

News Corp solidarity can’t always be relied on.  Its organs bagged the ABC mercilessly after the ABC and Guardian Australia reported Edward Snowden’s drop of NSA – Five Eyes intelligence: that the ASD had been bugging the mobile telephones of Indonesia’s then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono,  his wife and senior Indonesian minsters.  Picking up the theme News Corp’s then favourite prime minister, Tony Abbott, piled on, accusing the ABC of not playing for Australia.

But  now, when News Corps’ operatives are invaded, we’re all in this together. I’m hoping for an invitation to speak on press freedom at the Paul Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation soon.

BUT  NOW  .. watch the politicians and the security agencies play the Australian media like a trout.

The terms of reference written by Attorney General, Christian Porter,  for the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security are designed to take the heat and steam out of public outrage over the raids.  Everyone gets to make a submission about their experiences.  Terms of reference c: “Whether any and if so what changes could be made to procedures and thresholds for the exercise of those (law enforcement ) powers in relation to journalists and media organisations to better balance the need for press freedom with the need for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to investigate serious offending and obtain intelligence on security threats.”

The media is being asked to collaborate with security, intelligence agencies.  The media is being asked to address  the concept of “contested hearings” in relation to search warrants in future.  Please don’t raid us. We’ll hand over our USB sticks voluntarily and negotiate with you on what we can and cannot publish.   The media is being asked to condone law enforcement and intelligence agencies having access to electronic data on devices used by journalists and media organisations.

That’s not press freedom.  That’s a derivative of the old wartime D Notice system where all Australian media editors, including the ABC, agreed to be guided not to publish material deemed by the D Notice committee to be vital to national security.

In  the 1990s the ABC blotted the D Notice copybook when Foreign Correspondent reported that we’d wired the new Chinese Embassy with listening devices as it was under construction in leafy Canberra.  It was a big embarrassment at the time,   for Australia, the ABC .. and China.  The D Notice system was said to be under review but, according to Ita Buttrose, hadn’t been operating since 1982.

We’re not at war … are we?

Nowhere in the terms of reference of the current parliamentary committee is there  a call for submissions on the need for all intelligence and security agencies to build a new culture of transparency to honestly and intelligently engage the people of Australia with their important work.

Nowhere in the terms of reference is there a call for submissions for whistleblowers within security and intelligence agencies to be genuinely protected when they have the integrity to formally but internally raise their concerns about criminality, illegality, malfeasance or incompetence.  The Commonwealth Protected Disclose laws which apply to public administration, do not apply to employees of security and intelligence agencies.  Some officials believe that when you sign up for employment with a high or low level security clearance you are contracted to keep the agency’s secrets no matter what the blunder or illegality you may have witnessed.

I experienced the corporate or bureaucratic anger at whistleblowing  in the ABC in the 1990s when a brave whistleblower exposed what was called backdoor commercial sponsorship of ABC “infotainment” programs. He’d used the “upward referral” rule confidentially and  internally,  to draw attention to breaches of the ABC Act and editorial policies which prohibited commercial influence on program content.   Rather than being  praised for his integrity, he was vilified, sidelined and moved closer to the exit door. “Upward referral” was soon rendered to be in practice “downwardly destroy those who upwardly refer”.

Whistleblowers Australia confirms this phenomenon within Commonwealth, state public and private sector organisational culture and hierarchy.  Many whistleblowers find themselves on the outer immediately they lodge their concerns with their  superiors and soon the whistleblower is counselled, moved out of the workplace, isolated, alienated and then, often, traumatised to the point of psychological incapacity requiring medical discharge. The whistleblower is out …  the problem is covered up.

No wonder some go straight to the media and take their chances with  prosecution.

We need to think again about why whistleblowing is important to competent public and private organisational integrity.

In terms of national security it is more important than ever.  Just ask Andrew Wilkie, the courageous Australian intelligence analyst who resigned rather than be part of the coalition-of-the-willing’s fabricated justification  for the invasion of Iraq in 2004 .. now proved to be a lethal folly .. tragically akin to the war  in Vietnam.

To drive home the point about transparency I need here to repeat the death bed confession of Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defence, who Time magazine asserted had delivered one of the 10 greatest apologies: of all time “We were wrong, terribly wrong (on Vietnam).  We owe it to future generations to explain why.” (— McNamara, writing in his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect, on the management of the Vietnam War.)  The Nixon administration used its plumbers, the dirty tricks squad to raid the psychiatrist’s office of analyst Daniel Ellsberg who’d given the Pentagon Papers (which proved the folly of Vietnam) to The New York Times and the Washington Post.

Secrecy .. it can mislead the polity.

Secrecy  … it can kill our young soldiers, sailors and airmen and women.

Now in 2019 it seems we’ve learnt nothing from the apology of Robert McNamara or the persecution of Daniel Ellsberg,  and contemporaneously  the persecution of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, the NSA’s Edward Snowden .. or the attempted discrediting of Australia’s Andrew Wilkie. .. the prosecution of ASIS’s Witness K and Bernard Collaery, the ATO whistleblower Richard Boyle or the Australian Defence Force’s Afghan Files whistleblower David McBride.

In this era of lone wolf and copy cat terror, of war mongering and sabre rattling as the United States builds up fear of a Chinese invasion … and not just from full fee-paying Chinese university students …  where the defence analyst Hugh White says Australia must consider having submarines equipped with missiles with nuclear warheads to protect ourselves from China … we need to pause and think again about what we are doing and why.

How much do nuclear warheads cost?  Don’t we need to mitigate climate change first?  Can we make nuclear warheads in South Australia or do we have to import them from the US?  Wouldn’t the possession of nuclear weapons make Australia a certified target for nuclear attack?  Won’t diversion of taxpayer funds to our nuclear capability mean much less for education, health and infrastructure for our congested cities?

Big question:  Will China’s President Xi Jinping order the People’s Liberation Army into Hong Kong to crush the pro-democracy protest movement … or will he leave it to the locals to root out the dissident leaders over time and/or just wait patiently until One Country/Two Systems expires in 2047?  We don’t need secrecy.  We need to have a fully informed discussion about risks and our preparedness to face them or mitigate them.

China does not have a free press.  So we need to demonstrate to the Chinese Communist Party politburo that we can handle the truth through the clash of ideas facilitated by a free press, robust and transparent public and corporate governance .. what we call  a functioning  democracy  … the separation of powers .. an independent judiciary, fair electoral boundaries.. and an accountable executive government through our representative parliaments.

In this era of  President Donald Trump’s Twitter brinkmanship with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Iran’s President  Hassan Rouhani and Australia’s usual symbolic support for the US with our frigate deployed in the Straits of Hormuz, we need smarter, more competent intelligence agencies capable of building trust with Australian taxpayers.   We need intellectually honest engagement with the public, not the criminalising of journalists and the persecution of whistleblowers and media informants.

The US pursuit of Australian citizen Julian Assange now facing UK  (Boris Johnson) supported extradition and incarceration for life in a US prison; the 2013 courageous action of NSA contractor Edward Snowden, in alerting the world to NSA breaches of the US constitution through illegal mass surveillance,  has actually deepened the paranoia of security and intelligence agencies.  It hasn’t changed their thinking to one of engagement with people they say they are trying to defend and protect.  Apparently it’s an imperative for them to be  able to show the world, particularly foreign intelligence agency rivals trying to hack into our systems, that they have the determination to keep their own secrets.

This is madness.

When I mentioned earlier the “understandable paranoia” of our home affairs  security and intelligence agencies,  I was trying to keep in fair perspective the heavy burden on them to keep us safe given the global fear now being escalated by constituent politicians along with the xenophobia and nationalism being provoked by “trade wars” and dog whistle racism by constituent politicians helped by Steve Bannon and his Brietbart methodology.

With random and copycat terror … where and when someone can drive a ute into a crowded street .. where the white supremacist Christchurch shooter, unobserved, unidentified  by security agencies, can arm himself with semi automatic rifles and massacre worshippers in that city’s mosques… there is an impossible pressure on our domestic security and counter terrorism agencies.  There’s not a hope in hell they can keep us safe under these totally random circumstances.

I’d simply hate to be Duncan Lewis, head of ASIO.  Why didn’t he and ASIO know about the threats from these people?  And if I was Duncan Lewis I’d want real time access to everyone’s mobile phones and browsing history to act immediately on any tip off.  How can individual privacy be a barrier to public safety …  he would ask?   No wonder our politicians have agreed to demands by security agencies for 75 security laws including  instantaneous warrantless access to meta data, telephony and everyone’s digital footprint.  No wonder we now are developing interoperability in facial and vehicle recognition technology with CCTV monitoring of the streets and byways of Australia.  How can the luxury of individual privacy be a barrier to public safety?

We can understand the pressure the era of terror, xenophobia and fear imposes on all our law enforcement and security guardians.

But for that very reason, these same agencies need to be much more transparent about what they’re doing .. and why.  They want us to phone a 1800 number if we reasonably suspect anyone of malign intent.  The public will help keep us save.  But to build trust we need more exposure and debate about the laws which are supposed to govern their operations and the reasons that our privacy can be so easily taken away but with measures in place to  safeguard it.

Next week our old mate Brian Toohey will publish his next book “Secret – The Making of Australia’s Security State”. Melbourne University Press

I’ve been reading an embargoed copy and will honour that embargo by not revealing its fresh insights and exposures of the full panoply of security and intelligence misjudgements, blunders and incompetence over the post world war one and two period.   But, as you’d expect, Brian lays it all out. He despairs about the unhealthy paranoia which drives the secret  state,  with the US, China, Russia, the UK, France,  India, Pakistan and Israel and others armed to the teeth with nuclear missiles with an ever present risk of error, escalation or misjudgement.

It’s a great book, particularly from an Australian perspective.  I hope it helps Andrew Hastie and members of the joint parliamentary committee on security and intelligence  to think much more seriously and deeply  about press freedom and the need for transparency in exactly what the security and intelligence agencies are doing to keep us safe.

Finally, I also draw your attention to Bernard Collaery’s portentous remark at the end of Steve Cannane and Peter Cronau’s  ABC Four Corners report on Monday night about the Timor L’Este raids on that  cabinet office in Dili.  What does Mr Collaery mean when he says that when  all this unpleasantness (his prosecution) is over he will have something more to say and that there’s a “boomerang” phenomenon developing in this distressing and vicious over-reach by the Commonwealth Government?

Well …  one indicator could be contained in what  Professor Clinton Fernandes wrote in Crikey dot com on Wednesday this week.

Professor Fernandes says ASIS and its eavesdropping and intelligence gathering capability is being used for commercial purposes not just for government revenues but for corporate wealth.  He reports that from 1970 onwards,  the government agency Geoscience Australia conducted …

  “scientific surveys of Australia’s undersea geology, and then handed over this publicly-funded information to petroleum companies for almost nothing. In 1988, Treasury, with the support of the Department of Finance, objected to such valuable information being given away to private interests, urging “a much more substantial level of cost recovery”. But the Department of Foreign Affairs insisted the “national interest” required taxpayers fund the costs and — crucially, the risks — of investment in fundamental research, while the corporate sector benefited from the energy riches in the continental shelf.

On September 4, 1984, West Australian premier Brian Burke formally opened the $27 billion North West Shelf Gas Project, which was operated by a then little-known company called Woodside Petroleum. It began exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) in 1989. The project has today become one of the largest LNG producers in the world and Woodside has become Australia’s largest standalone oil and gas company, and one of the top 20 stocks in the ASX by market capitalisation.

The Australian government has seemingly deployed the full weight of its diplomatic, legal and scientific assets over decades to secure massive benefits for Woodside’s shareholders. In return, according to Woodside’s own calculations in February 2017, governments have received approximately $26 billion in royalties, excise and taxes from the North West Shelf Project since it began in 1984.

Other governments have taken a different approach: the Norwegian government is the largest shareholder in Statoil, its state oil company. Statoil’s workers elect several of the company directors, and its shareholder meetings are open to the public, as are its financial statements. The Norwegian government created the “Oljefondet” (or Oil Fund) in 1990 to invest Norway’s oil revenue. The fund had US$1 trillion (more than A$1.2 trillion) in December 2017.

In Australia, the “national interest” has instead amounted to the socialisation of costs and risks, and the privatisation of profits, with taxpayers getting a trickle of revenue in return.”

Now that’s a very serious allegation from Professor Fernandes:  If this is true the Australian people are being robbed.  Our intelligence, security and government agencies are being misused for shareholder benefit .. not public benefit.

Maybe that’s what Bernard Collaery means when he says this will boomerang on the government.  I think we need another Four Corners investigation into this allegation, particularly when the bugging of the Timor L’Este embassy is a clear evidentiary lead into what looks like a more systemic problem.  This is to be a test of the media’s resolve to expose the truth, the Federal Parliament’s obligation to call executive government to account and, if  there are roadblocks to the truth, necessarily may point to the need for yet another judicial inquiry or royal commission.

And .. penultimately  … before we go to war with Xi Jinxing and China …  I want to share Robert McNamara’s 11 lessons from the folly of Australia/US and New Zealand involvement  in the war in Vietnam.  Untold millions of north and south Vietnamese and Cambodians  were killed, 58,000 US military personnel and support staff were killed, more than 500 Australians and New Zealanders and other foreign nationals were killed. A tragedy.  A folly.  A monumental misjudgment over what  is called national security.  Please also apply this line of thinking to any of our current suspected or perceived enemies.

From Robert McNamara’s 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.

* “We misjudged then — and we have since — the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries … and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions.

* We viewed the people and leaders of  Vietnam in terms of our own experience … We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.

* We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.

* Our misjudgments of friend and foe, alike, reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.

* We failed then — and have since — to recognise the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine. We failed, as well, to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.

* We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale military involvement … before we initiated the action.

* After the action got under way, and unanticipated events forced us off our planned course … we did not fully explain what was happening, and why we were doing what we did.

*  We did not recognise that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgment of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or as we choose.

*  We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action … should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.

* We failed to recognise that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.

* Underlying many of these errors lay our failure to organise the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues.

These are slightly shortened versions of the text from page 321 to page 323 of his book.

All but an ignorant redneck would weep as  they read these tragic lessons from the folly of Vietnam.  I’m  hoping for a similar confession, apology and lessons learnt from George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard  and our intelligence services for the folly of Iraq.

And finally .. when it comes to a free press and journalism operating within a functioning democracy where the rule of law applied by an independent judiciary hopefully still applies, I draw your attention to US District Court Judge Murray Gurfein who rejected the Nixon administration’s request for an injunction restraining The New York Times from further publication of Daniel Ellsberg’s leaked Pentagon Papers. Judge Gurfein’s ruling was later confirmed by a majority on the US Supreme Court. There was no negotiation over what the Times and the Post could or couldn’t publish.

Judge Gurfein wrote: “The security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”

 And to Annika Smethurst .. thanks for enduring the official violation of your underwear drawer.

Quentin Dempster is contributing editor of  The New Daily.  This is an edited version of his speech to Politics in the Pub, Toxteth Hotel, Sydney, Thursday 29th August 2019. 

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Quentin Dempster, former chairman of the Walkley Foundation, is a contributing editor at The New Daily.

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