In Tuesday’s comments section, Neil James, executive director of the  Australia Defence Association, claimed that, inter alia, ASIO is “independently supervised … by a statutory, independent, Inspector-General”. In the immediate wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the USSR and de facto end of the cold war (c 1989-91), ASIO argued its need for a substantial budgetary increase (yes, increase).

Its reasoning was that, as the threat from overseas had subsided, the domestic threat had increased. Having been interviewed by ASIO at that time due to having visited Cuba in 1988-89, I was asked by the media to comment on what ASIO seemed to be concerned about, given that it evidently viewed my visit as signifying that I was an Australian who had developed a domestically threatening relationship with an unfriendly regime.

It was never clear to me whether ASIO distinguished between Australia’s and the US’ interests in this regard, but it was certainly not apparent.  It was surely easier to draw a  line between domestic threats and Indonesia rather than Cuba, given successive Australian defence assessments identifying Indonesia as representing the only potential state threat to Australia’s security, however, the ASIO officers visiting my house in 1989 showed no interest in my primary schoolchildren’s then-recent visit to Bali with their mother.

My resultant interviews with national radio, TV and print media were located by them (media) in the context of that ASIO budget push, and were accompanied by some unfavourable (to ASIO) editorial comment. That short flurry of resultant media coverage was evidently viewed by ASIO as damaging (although it did — as it continues to do — succeed in leveraging big budgetary increases).

As a consequence, I was contacted by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, who claimed that he was inquiring into my “complaints” against ASIO.  (He took three days longer than the media to locate me in Hobart.)

Despite me repeatedly reminding him that I had never claimed to have “complained” about ASIO visiting and questioning me — I had simply reported the facts of its visit — the Inspector-General required me to submit the substance of my “complaint” to him in writing.  Of course, I did not, as I had never complained. I was consequently reported in his annual report as a person (unnamed) who’d publicly complained about ASIO and had failed to substantiate my complaints in writing. (Now that should have been my complaint!)

With respect to Neil James’ claim of the Inspector-General being independent, I recall the Inspector-General eventually conceding — it was a long telephone interview – –that his reports to the Parliamentary Committee were first vetted by the head of ASIO (which I’d already noted from its governing legislation), and that the post had never, at least at that time, found any substance to any complaints against  ASIO (which I’d already noted from perusing his annual reports).

I’m not familiar with the powers of a standing Royal Commission, but would be surprised if — as  James seems to infer — its final report was first vetted by the entity that it was investigating before its passage to the Parliament.

In my view, Jeff Sparrow and others are to be congratulated for asking the important questions that are rarely asked publicly, regardless of how inconvenient some may find the answers.

Peter Fray

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