The ASIO of today is a fundamentally different organisation from that of 1949, 1954 (the Petrov defection), or for that matter 1983. The Cold War ended 31 years ago, before most ASIO employees were born, and the mindset of a much more technocratic organisation is not much shaped by Cold War experience or prejudices.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, indeed, it 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. Modern ASIO heads speak at the National Press Club, and the organisation has a Twitter presence.
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.
Modern intelligence and security chiefs have higher profiles, when they want it. But, if any question is inconvenient, they can claim secrecy. They can harass, arrest and charge any critic betraying evidence of inside knowledge, and sometimes, with an amazingly pliant judiciary, put them in jail via secret trial. The organisations openly lobby for new powers, in the process often dismissing reasoned criticisms and making grand but contentious pronouncements about Australia's position in the world. These are usually more opinions than the result of formal analysis, and are often beyond the briefs of the agencies they represent.
Like the AFP, some agencies cultivate selected journalists who are fed inside tips on raids, arrests or major announcements, and reciprocate with largely uncritical commentary. Most of the politicians on the parliamentary committee to which they are notionally accountable are entirely uncritical, sometimes for fear of being called "weak".
Every university, it now seems, has courses on intelligence analysis, international relations and "national security studies". A good many graduates hope to get jobs inside the system. Professors and lecturers drift in and out of the system. They are mostly unmoved about the ever-increasing size of the intelligence industry, the resources it commands and the gravy train it provides for nearly everyone concerned.
Hostile leaking is deplored. Self-serving leaking is common, and if there has to be a leak inquiry, the AFP, when it can be bothered at all, takes great pains not to implicate the main leakers - ministers and their staff. Stories in The Australian - usually that the other side of politics (most often Labor) is weak, hopeless and irresolute on national security, but occasionally straying into issues such as defence or the refugee "invasion" - show signs of hand-feeding.
A fairly recent reorganisation of agencies saw former ASIS chief Nick Warner made top spook and head of the Office of National Intelligence. More money and staff were allocated. It largely went to extra layers of bureaucracy "liaising" between agencies. It does not appear to have actually increased the quality of the intelligence reaching end users, nor the speed of its arrival.
When material shows criminality, overreach, intelligence failure, cover-up, or even empire-building, leakers - if they can be found - are charged. The gulf - and hypocrisy - of those using secrecy to conceal abuse is the chief reason - though not the only one - why most claims of secrecy and national security overriding any other consideration, including the public interest, should be taken with a grain of salt. Never once has the system - political or bureaucratic - shown any anxiety to curb abuse or call it to account. And the existing accountability mechanisms are not adequate to the task.
Over recent years, most agencies seem to be seeking to expand their roles, and concentrate less on their original functions. ASD, for example, exists primarily to suck up the electronic communications of other countries. But it keeps wanting to expand its role into cyber-attack, cyber-defence, the monitoring of Australians by people the Home Affairs minister does not like, and finding of paedophiles and other ordinary criminals. The expertise for these latter functions may be similar to the core task, but the mindset and calibre of person required is different. This corrupts and compromises both functions.
Likewise, ASIO bosses lost their focus on counter-espionage and security intelligence in their keenness to fight terrorism and play with guns. They seem to think security intelligence has given the organisation expertise in analysis and the discernment of enemy intentions.
Home Affairs used the pretext of wanting to set up warning systems about refugee and drug importations to seek to become not only an intelligence "collector", like ASIO, ASIS or ASD, but also an intelligence analyst, a big player when the big boys gather to decide what all of the confusing noise means (if anything).
One would have to go back to the 1970s to find the nation so ill-served. All the more so as politicians have politicised national security, and reverted to 1960s games of gathering and using secret information for political purposes. It would not be strictly correct to describe the agencies themselves, or their leaders, as politically compromised - at least in a party partisan way - but each now operates in a far-from-detached environment.
ASIO tail wags the Pekinese dog
As terrorism seemed to lose some of its thrall, ASIO came to remember that one of its core functions, left somewhat on the back burner over much of this century, is finding spies from other countries attempting to get hold of important secrets. It turns out that there has been a lot of it going on, both by our friends and our enemies.
China is enemy number one in this regard at the moment, and not only because it has been developing a huge technical capacity to monitor things Australian, but because about 5 per cent of the population here is of at least part-Chinese descent, and we have had, at least up to the pandemic, more than 100,000 Chinese nationals studying in our universities and research institutions, some able to be coerced into co-operation.
They are asked to pass on sensitive information: new technology, patents and inventions, secret economic information, inside commercial information able to be exploited for profit, and political gossip giving insight into past or future events. Beyond this is the capacity to gain insights into broader Western alliance intelligence and defence information, as well as, increasingly, the very subjective business now obsessing modern security agencies - so-called "agents of influence", or people pushing opinions (not really their own) for the purpose of benefiting their secret client.
That client is often China, but it could be America, or Spain, or Japan, or France when it comes to a submarine contract. Such people - guns for hire, pretending that their earnest expressed opinions are their own, rather than paid for - are sometimes known as lawyers, lobbyists, think tanks, or, on social media, "influencers".
At a time when Scott Morrison was under opposition pressure because of political and health department failures to protect those in nursing homes from COVID-19, he announced sweeping legislation designed to bring order to this whole secret influencing business - whether at the Commonwealth, state or local government levels or in co-operative arrangements, of a sort the Commonwealth once strongly encouraged, between universities and research institutions.
The theory behind this legislation, predictably regarded as a masterstroke by The Australian and other News Corp organs, is that the cunning Chinese, and perhaps other nations, have infiltrated such arrangements so as to make China the chief beneficiary of secret information, and perhaps even pervert ostensibly worthy arrangements so that they become secret organs of pro-China propaganda, or the cover behind which spies operate.
Our intelligence community knows quite a bit about the type of illegal and improper intelligence activity going on, whether it is being done by China, Russia, or anyone else. It's about looking for secrets - not the information exchange of diplomacy, the open academy, the perusal of the internet, officially published information or media comment, the stuff of most intelligence studies. We know because we, like most other countries, do exactly the same as China is alleged to do, and not only in China.
Indeed, the level of spying on China, including the monitoring of most of its signals traffic, is still thought to be far bigger and more comprehensive than China's spying on us. We also have Australian spies on the ground, others carefully monitoring movements of ships, armies, and significant assets, and others carefully analysing economic information, diplomatic relationships, political developments, living conditions, crops and military equipment. A good deal of the economic information, sanitised, is given to major companies to help plan their activities in China. Much of the intelligence they gather is informally shared with our own intelligence system.
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 this week 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.
This week, the last two Australian journalists working for Australian clients abruptly departed China, after being told they faced interviews about breaches of its national security. We all deplore this, of course. But soon we discovered that it was a tit-for-tat in response to two actions by ASIO.
It began with a trademark AFP-ASIO raid - naturally in full and overstaffed SWAT mode and with a tipped-off pack of tame media - on a NSW Labor MP and one of his staffers, alleged, with no evidence on offer as yet, to be some sort of agent-of-influence operation. Open conversations on the Chinese app WeChat (their equivalent of Facebook) appear to have been involved.
We do know, of course, that Chinese businessmen, whom we can assume to be acting with the knowledge of or at the direction of their governments, have been seeking to gain influence in our political parties, and to suborn some of our politicians. But the mere fact that some politicians have links with Chinese businessmen does not prove one to be a Chinese agent.
In June, ASIO agents descended on four Chinese journalists and two Chinese academics, confiscating computers and, apparently, even some children's toys. The suggestion was that the journalists, in news-gathering, may have crossed some line into what ASIO might regard as illegality - perhaps dealing with a leak, or gathering information on some anti-Chinese-government group, such as the Falun Gong. Likewise, the academics, both well-known researchers and commentators in both China and Australia, were told that ASIO had concluded they had crossed some line - evidence unstated - and must leave.
Suggestions of something sinister in the dealings of Australian journalists - including one, who works for Chinese media, still effectively in detention in China - seem in parallel with what happened here.
At another time, the kicking out of supposed spies - Valeriy Ivanov, for example, or Ivan Skipov - was announced by a prime minister or the minister for foreign affairs. This one seems to have been a round robin in Home Affairs. It was not obvious that Foreign Affairs or Defence had even been in the loop.
MORE JACK WATERFORD:
Was this ASIO flexing its muscles as a new player in Australian foreign policy - kick-starting fresh rounds of hostilities with China? One can, after all, usually see the ASIO director, Mike Burgess, around when there are fresh calls for action against our chief trading partner, even when its identity is unspoken. When he was head of ASD, Burgess was the main adviser recommending against Huawei being allowed into the 5G network. There is no doubt about his intelligence background, or his technical talents. He has, however, yet to demonstrate in public that he has that first quality of the counter-intelligence officer and adviser - judgment.
Does this muscular display of the Peter Dutton agencies (ASIO, the AFP and Home Affairs all report to him) signal a new dawn of war against the communists by a real strongman? Perhaps, but I doubt that other ministers on the national intelligence committee would be, or should be, amused.
Yet I think one would struggle to find an ASIO conspiracy. ASIO is almost incapable of that.
This is no disrespect to them, as such. Insiders and outsiders in the intelligence system have a habit of imagining that the other side is omnipotent, able to do almost anything, including infiltrate moles at top levels, even as they themselves struggle and fail at almost anything they do.
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. That is not a result of sabotage, or enemy action, but of human nature, the Peter principle and confused objectives.
But if we need some Mickey Mouse outfits to compromise 50 years of work in developing economic, political and cultural links with China and its government - in pursuit of some theory that we are acting to project and promote Australia's interests - it would be hard to go past this shower.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. email@example.com.