ASIO (4): terrorism, transparency and traitors
30 Jan 2015|

The age of Jihadists coincides with the blizzard of Snowden. For Australia’s security services, that means the time of terrorism collides with the time of transparency. Completely different sets of questions mingle and clash. Stir in the China epoch of the Asian Century. Add, as always, the traditional, vital interests in the US alliance. The customary challenges of counter-espionage look equally fresh and new.

The story of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation offers some thoughts but no big answers to the mingling of these eras—same techniques, different targets, new debates. ASIO’s official historian, Professor David Horner, comments that governments and agencies have responded to the age of transparency by clamping down harder. The impact of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden has been to make governments even more paranoid and secretive.

All those elements create what Frank Moorhouse calls the ‘Dark Conundrum’—the secret methods a democracy uses to protect itself. In his book Australia Under Surveillance, Moorhouse starts with a reluctant reconciliation, an acceptance of the paradox of the secret organisation protecting the open society:

By the nature of such organisations the reconciliation cannot be comfortable. Nor can the reconciliation be stable, and it is sometimes seriously disputed. The libertarian has to be in permanent critical engagement with the secret security services, using whatever means it can. As citizens we know that the effectiveness of secret organisations is patchy; we know that they are prone to chafe at civil-liberty niceties, and use dangerous justification for their breaches…My lifetime of writing and political experience has taught me that secret agencies are prone to severe politicisation, error and private agendas against the public good. As I watch secret agencies in this country and in the wider world, I have learned how treacherous they can be, how dangerous it is to train thousands of agents in the black arts of secret agencies. Combined with the technologies of surveillance and counter-surveillance, and intelligence and counterintelligence, of disinformation and trickery, it is now a more volatile mix than ever before in our history.

The Lowy Institute poll put a version of the ‘Dark Conundrum’ to Australians and got this response:

Most Australians (68%) believe that ‘the government has struck about the right balance between protecting the rights of citizens and fighting terrorism’. A small proportion say that the balance has swung too far towards fighting terrorism, with one in five (19%) agreeing that ‘the government leans too much towards fighting terrorism over protecting the civil rights of Australian citizens’. Eleven per cent say ‘the government leans too much towards protecting the rights of citizens over fighting terrorism.

For ASIO’s head for the last five years, David Irvine, those findings mean Frank Moorhouse is among the 19 per cent ‘who make all the noise’. The noise matters, though, because it points to the constant need to strike the right balance. And the Conundrum pops up in all sorts of ways. For instance, Irvine says it has an impact on ASIO’s efforts to recruit Muslim staff:

I personally believe that we do not have enough Muslim ASIO officers. People who have been brought up within the community, as opposed to being exposed to it and having to learn about it. There’s an interesting reason for that if you think about it—so many of our Muslim Australians have actually come from societies and countries where the very notion of a secret service is an anathema. It’s really quite interesting that part of my outreach to the communities is saying “hey, actually this is how we operate under the law and by the way it’s actually our job to protect you too”. So we’ve had to change our community outreach quite considerably.

To relate all of that to ASIO’s foundational story, here is the final part of the ASPI interview with David Horner, on ‘The Spy Catchers’, the first of a three-volume Official History of ASIO.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Video produced by Luke Wilson.