What's the story behind this shadowy government agency?
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What's the story behind this shadowy government agency?

After dipping a toe in the world of public relations with a Twitter account, the Australian Signals Directorate is set to take a leap in the direction of transparency, with plans to publish a two-volume history of the agency.

While Defence has been intercepting communications since World War II, under names like the Defence Signals Branch or the Defence Signals Division, the organisation has only existed as a separate statutory agency since July this year.

Australian Signals Directorate boss Mike Burgess, pictured when he was chief of information security at Telstra.

Australian Signals Directorate boss Mike Burgess, pictured when he was chief of information security at Telstra.Credit:Ben Rushton

Since then its director-general Mike Burgess gave an address titled "coming out from the shadows" and the agency's first tweet joked "Hi internet, ASD here. Long time listener, first time caller".

Now tender documents reveal the agency is considering spending between $500,000 and $2 million on creating the books, with an outsider to be brought into the fold to tell the stories that have been kept under wraps. According to the release for tender, the newly separate agency wants to "increase its public profile".

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"ASD has played an important role in ensuring Australia’s national security since the formation of its predecessors, and is one of the key elements of Australia’s intelligence community. ASD has contributed positively to Australian society, however its work has never been able to be fully appreciated by the Australian public due to the classified nature of ASD’s mission," the tender documents say.

The deadline for the two volume history is 2022, to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the creation of the Defence Sigint Bureau - the directorate's original form.

Volume one would cover the agency's origin story until 2001, while volume two would be from 2002 onwards. The second volume would be "less detailed", according to the tender documents, to protect more recent national security operations.

The Signals Directorate isn't the first Australian intelligence agency to commission an official history to be written. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has already published three volumes of its own history.

Professor John Blaxland, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, wrote the second volume of ASIO's history and co-wrote the third volume with Rhys Crawley. He sees parallels between ASIO's experience and that of the Signals Directorate.

"ASIO has always been prominent in Australian society because it was about domestic security and intelligence operations, so people in Australia felt it as very real. What's happened is ASD for a long time has been in the shadows, even the name of the organisation was a bit of a cover name, it really didn't speak directly to what it did," Professor Blaxland said.

The book, and the PR push, reflect a change in direction forced by the changing technological landscape, according to Professor Blaxland.

"Security challenges have changed dramatically so cyber security is now mainstream in Australian society as an issue that affects us all. So ASD has emerged as an organisation much more centrally important to society than it had previously been seen to be and that warrants a detailed explanation of what this organisation is about, why it exists, what it's done for us and why it's important."

Professor John Blaxland, author of the official history of ASIO's second volume.

Professor John Blaxland, author of the official history of ASIO's second volume.Credit:Jamila Toderas

While the tender documents maintain the directorate would be able to veto content in the book, Professor Blaxland said his experience with ASIO showed a true "warts and all" history could be published while protecting operational secrets and identities, and include less flattering judgments about the agency.

While he was surprised at the resistance in the middle ranks of the agency to airing ASIO's dirty laundry, those at the top knew the history couldn't be written without it.

"The heads of ASIO [when the books were written] David Irvine and Duncan Lewis both recognised that that had to be included otherwise it would not be credible. If we weren't to call a spade a spade and to show the organisation fumbling, failing, getting caught out and making mistakes then the story would not be credible," Professor Blaxland said.

The book was raked over line by line by the intelligence agency, in a push and pull with the authors where information was removed to protect the identity of ASIO employees and operational secrets, while also leaving in enough detail for a juicy story.

"What we found is going through that we could work out a way of saying things without taking the story away and so in the end, the manuscript that we submitted at Top Secret came out at Unclassified with 92 per cent of the manuscript still there so that's pretty good going," Professor Blaxland said.

In the pitch for the book, the agency said it hopes that an official history "would attract more Australian talent with the ASD".

The pressure to find the right staff is one shared by all intelligence agencies, Professor Blaxland said.

"The demands are great, the credit is limited. You can't crow about this stuff outside to your friends, to your family, you have to derive satisfaction from knowing you've done a job well. The secret of success in the intelligence and security business is in keeping your successes a secret," he said.

Sally Whyte is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service.

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