It’s welcome news that we’ll see an investigation into the circumstances in which, as Justice Michael Adams put it, two ASIO officers “committed the criminal offences of false imprisonment and kidnapping at common law”. Given the extraordinary powers now enjoyed by ASIO, the revelations of systemic wrongdoing should send alarm bells ringing.

Yet one should not be too optimistic as to the results of the mooted investigation. Think, for instance, about the inquiry currently taking place into policing in Victoria.

Recently, the following exchange took place between the police union’s Paul Mullett and retired judge Murray Wilcox at the Office of Police Integrity hearings, after Mullett agreed that officers were protecting each other by passing on secret information about corruption investigations.

“It is probably not right, but that is the nature and culture of policing.”

“Do you concede it is very wrong?”

“Now that you are saying that, Your Honour, yes.”

If that’s the culture of policing, what’s the culture of spying?

Police are under pressure from the public to deliver results. Not surprisingly, they are constantly tempted to cut corners. They feel themselves to be members of a small and misunderstood group performing difficult and dangerous work. Naturally, they band together against outsiders.

All the same pressures exist in the security forces, albeit massively accentuated by secrecy. Given that police culture traditionally frustrates inquires into corruption with the force, it’s not surprising that most of the past investigations into ASIO have been remarkably inconclusive.

The two most significant inquiries into ASIO were conducted by Justice Hope in 1974 and 1983. We now know that, as David McKnight explains, Hope uncovered substantial evidence that ASIO “had been largely unaccountable and had been used as a political tool during the long reign of the Liberal-Country Party coalition from 1949 to 1972.”

McKnight quotes a number of examples. In 1970, the NSW secretary of the Liberal Party, John Carrick, asked and received from ASIO three background papers on the radical student movement. The same year, the office of the Prime Minister, John Gorton, asked ASIO for a briefing on Jim Cairns’ brushes with the law.

Yet though Hope’s reports contained recommendations about the future, they did nothing to investigate the wrongdoing of the past.

Why? Think again about what’s happening in Victoria. Cracking the culture of wrongdoing now on display will be long and difficult and politically painful. Without the pressure created by public scrutiny, would any government pursue it?

Almost by definition, any inquiry into ASIO doesn’t take in the public. And that’s the rub. You can have a secret organisation or you can have accountability. It’s very difficult to have both.