Jack Waterford, longest-serving chief reporter, editor and editor in chief of the Canberra Times, is probably Australia’s most credentialed, astute, federal, police and security watcher. He has lived the National Capital and its Community’s vagaries and inanities for many decades.
Here’s some of what he had to say recently about ASIO (and the AFP.)
“After the fall of the Soviet Union, (ASIO) had to invent some new functions to remain in business at all, and had settled mainly on politically motivated violence (a.k.a. terrorism) even before the events of September 11, 2001 – which gave it new impetus, allowed it to more than double in size, and to warrant the ‘Lubyanka by the Lake’ in which it is presently headquartered.
Ideal, except when the glass panels fall off, which they were wont to do with regularity.
“The ‘War on Terror’ saw conservative governments change the ASIO legislative charter to give it executive powers.
“This was a big mistake. Previously it could only advise government; it now has powers of arrest, of detention of suspects for questioning, increased powers of surveillance, the capacity to bug, tap and monitor computer traffic, and even the power to make major computer companies provide codes so that encrypted messages can be read.
“Most new resources, and some old ones, went to new functions. Many overlapped with the AFP, which itself built an empire on the War on Terror. The AFP also, by sleight of hand, began to use the new technology and toys being used in the intelligence community in ordinary criminal investigations, if without conspicuous success.
“China invests billions in spying on the world – though much more on the US, Russia, India and Japan than on Australia. The world spends more billions spying on it, and a good deal of what is gathered is shared with us.
“Because spooks tend to think that clandestinely gathered information is more likely to be true than publicly available information, the premium paid for anything ‘secret’ is high – though it has rarely demonstrated anything to be much different than it has seemed. The current alarm about a newly arrogant and aggressive China, for example, comes from public material, not from secret intelligence.
“Is it hypocritical of us to be deeply critical of Chinese spying on us while we are doing the same to them? To regard one as aggressive and deeply criminal, while ours is simply prudent? Yes.
“There are some who will pretend a difference because Australia is a deeply virtuous country, committed to democratic norms, liberal ideas and humane ideals*, while China is a deeply authoritarian nation, oppressing and sometimes murdering its citizens.
“ASIO (recently) pretended it was deeply offensive and absurd to find any equivalence. The truth is that ASIO – like Prime Minister and Cabinet or the Health Department, to choose two topical examples – usually couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery.”
– excerpt from the article ‘ASIO is a Mickey Mouse outfit compromising 50 years of diplomacy with China’ , Jack Waterford, Canberra Times, 11 Sept 2020
* As in our spying on East Timor during oil and gas negotiations – Ed.