‘The whole idea of publishing a detailed history of an intelligence organisation based on its classified files seems counterintuitive. Intelligence organisations trade in secrecy. If they reveal their sources, the sources will dry up. If they reveal their techniques their opponents will counter them. If the identities of officers are revealed they will no longer be able to operate with the freedom necessary to achieve their tasks.’
With that opening paragraph, David Horner launches his official history, using the secret files to tell the secrets of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in its fight against spies, terrorists, sabotage and subversion.
Horner writes that the book is based on ‘full and unfettered’ access to ASIO’s records. Part of the aim, he says, is to deal with myths or half-truths about ASIO that have survived for half a century:
These myths damaged the Organisation’s standing in the Australian community, and this is unfortunate because ASIO does not exist for itself. Rather, ASIO exists to serve the nation; as a government instrumentality it ultimately needs to justify its existence to the people of Australia and both sides of Parliament, and to retain their confidence.
In commissioning the three-volume history by academics from the Australian National University, ASIO is offering an accounting that seeks to slay myths, reveal some secrets and justify its existence. Launching Horner’s volume, the Attorney-General, George Brandis, congratulated both ASIO and the Oz polity:
Security agencies present a paradox for democratic governance. By their nature they are required to operate covertly. Yet parliamentary democracy depends upon accountability and transparency. Reconciling those two imperatives is by no means easy. Yet, after 65 years, the very high level of public confidence which Australians have in ASIO is the strongest testament there could be to the fact that we have, on the whole, resolved that paradox successfully. The fact that we have done so is a tribute to the maturity of our political and governmental institutions.
For a sharper insight into the tensions and tradeoffs involved in confronting that paradox, consult Gareth Evans’ diary. As Labor’s Attorney-General, Evans records this on 21 October 1984:
The main achievement of the day was to work through a dozen or so outstanding ASIO warrant applications, writing appropriately rude or sceptical things on several of them, and worrying—as usual—just how much of it all is objectively justified, and how much is part of the ongoing spook mystique. My general working principle is not to take too many chances at all with the anti-terrorism warrant applications, to be a bit more sceptical about the counterespionage, and to be quite profoundly sceptical about everything else.
ASIO has been playing this game for a long time. The struggle with a sceptical Attorney-General can be conducted with various degrees of roughness. The diary, ten days later, reports a discussion that Evans thinks would have pleased ‘spook-averse’ Labor Party colleagues:
My office day primarily involves a very prickly exchange with ASIO’s [head] Harvey Barnett, with him expressing wounded indignation about the access I have given to some junior officers with industrial relations grumbles, and me making it clear that I am not entirely besotted with the Organisation at the moment on several other fronts – not least with some recent leaks which seemed to be attributable to a combination of foot soldiers and senior ideologues unhappy with the winding back of activity on the subversion front.
An annual report at the official end and a bit of leaking in the unofficial shadows can do only so much to tell ASIO’s story. And as for the political masters…well! An official history helps with much more than myth-busting.
The third ASPI interview with David Horner looks at ASIO giving up its secrets, the moral dilemma of the vast number of files created on average Australians who were no threat to society, and the ‘massive waste of time and resources’ in surveillance of intellectuals, writers and artists.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Video produced by Luke Wilson.