When the security forces came to arrest Jack Thomas a few years back, a camera crew was already waiting outside his house, so that the take-down of this supposedly dangerous terrorist could appear on the Channel Seven news that evening.

Now, if you or I tipped off the media about a scheduled anti-terror raid, we’d probably go to gaol. Remember, the laws introduced by Howard (and retained by Rudd) contain extraordinary provisions about the disclosure of information. If, for instance, you are placed under preventative detention, you’re not even permitted to tell friends or family (let alone journalists) where you are.

If you depart from the bizarre recommended script (“I am safe, but I am not able to be contacted for the time being”) when explaining why you can’t come home, well, it’s five years in the big house.

Yet, in every major terrorist case over the last years, the security agencies themselves have been surreptitiously and illegally feeding material to friendly journalists.

Why are agents prepared to break the law to cultivate the media, rather than simply doing their job and letting the headlines take care of themselves?

A few months back, The Age editorialist noted that:

Australia has since the events of 2001 enacted more than 30 pieces of anti-terrorism legislation that greatly increased the risk of injustices and unwarranted invasions of privacy. Police and security agencies have powers that would have been rejected as draconian a decade ago. These agencies have expanded rapidly. Australian Federal Police staff numbers have increased by 151 per cent from 2630 in 1998 to 6598 last year. The Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation grew from 625 staff in 1996 to 1492 last year, a 139 per cent increase.

In other words, these days, there’s a lot of people with a lot at stake in anti-terrorism. Eisenhower famously warned about the influence of what he called the “military-industrial complex”. The constant leaking surely reflects that, in Australia, there’s now a security industry conscious of its own interests and prepared to do what it takes to ensure that those interests receive the right kind of media coverage.

Does it matter? In his inquiry into ASIO in the seventies, Justice Hope warned that the agency “should not […] provide security intelligence, in any form, either directly or indirectly, and whether on any attributable basis or not, to the press or other media.” The admonition was necessary because, back then, ASIO regularly supplied dossiers about those it saw as its enemies to those it saw as its friends.

Today, ASIO has a budget of a quarter of a billion dollars each year and an information-gathering apparatus that makes the organization Hope dealt with seem positively Jurassic. Earlier this year, we learned something about phone tapping in Australia — specifically, that agencies here listen in to phone calls at twenty times the rate of their American counterparts.

The terrorism laws extend unprecedented powers to the security agencies, on the basis that officers are neutral, disinterested servants of parliaments, rather than political players in their own right. But an information-gathering apparatus on such a monstrous scale creates remarkable temptations for the politically-minded. Famously, J. Edgar Hoover wielded such tremendous influence in Washington partly because he knew everything about everyone.

Could something similar happen here? Well, if you’re prepared to jeopardize a long-planned raid in order to secure positive headlines, why would misusing a few phone taps here or there seem a big deal?

Because secret agencies are, like, secret, the chances of being caught out are minimal. Besides, the penalties handed out to those who transgress scarcely provide much of a deterrent. Consider the case of Izhar ul-Haque, a student thought by ASIO to have links with Lashkar-e-Toiba. In the NSW Supreme Court, Justice Michael Adams concluded that two ASIO officers had broken the law in a deliberate attempt to coerce information from ul-Haque. “I am satisfied that B15 and B16 [the ASIO officers],” the judge said, “committed the criminal offences of false imprisonment and kidnapping at common law and also an offence under section 86 of the Crimes Act.”

Now, if you or I kidnapped anyone, we’d expect a few years in gaol, minimum. So what happened to B15 and B16, our two ASIO bananas? Well, nothing, actually.

Tremendous power combined with an immunity from prosecution. What could possibly go wrong with that combination?

Simon Overland says that he will vigorously pursue whoever was responsible for talking to The Oz about the recent raid. That’s to be welcomed, especially since no-one seems to have punished for leaks about Thomas, Haneef, etc. Yet it’s worth considering what Paul Whittaker, the Australian’s editor, says about the current case.

Mr Overland’s remarks about The Australian are influenced by a historic animosity with The Australian for our longstanding push for a royal commission into police and official corruption in Victoria, as well as a high degree of inter-agency rivalry between the AFP and Victoria Police.

This was evident when Mr Overland, moments after criticising The Australian on Tuesday morning, expressed his frustration that The Australian had not given the Victorian police enough credit for its role in the investigation.

Now, obviously, Whittaker has his own axe to grind. Nonetheless, that’s a remarkable allegation.

The agency most concerned about leaks, says Whittaker, is not primarily concerned about the illegal dissemination of sensitive information. Rather, he says, it’s seeking revenge against its enemies — and it’s angry that it didn’t spin the news itself.