So what, in the end, did we learn from Nick Warner’s “historic” speech as head of the Australian Security Intelligence Service yesterday?

There was a nice anecdote about Menzies doling out martinis — how very cosmopolitan of Ming — although if Warner was hoping to undermine the impression ASIS has always been a clutch of clubby white male reactionaries, that was probably not the best way to kick off.

But despite the efforts of journalists like Fairfax’s Daniel Flitton to claim the speech was an “unprecedented glimpse” into ASIS, the bulk of Warner’s speech was national security boilerplate — terrorists, WMDs, cyber attacks, vague assurances that many terrorist plots had been disrupted. Despite the contrasting areas of operation of the two agencies, much of the speech could have been delivered by ASIO’s David Irvine.

Greater transparency from government agencies is always a good thing, and Warner’s decision to give a public speech is to be welcomed. But its anodyne nature did little to improve our understanding of ASIS’s operations. And no controversial topics — and especially not the government’s proposals to extend intelligence-gathering and surveillance powers, including those of ASIS — were broached, unless you regard as disturbing Warner’s admission that he was once a long-haired, scruffy youth.

Most peculiar was the following statement from Warner that “I can assure you ASIS is an agency with the highest levels of accountability and external oversight”.

In aid of that statement, he cited oversight by the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, ANAO analysis of its budget, and scrutiny by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. On the ANAO, Warner was gilding the lily a little. Of course the ANAO scrutinises ASIS’s budget — it scrutinises the financial statements of every Commonwealth entity annually.

The problem is what Warner means by accountability. ASIS has no public accountability. It doesn’t even have the limited public accountability of ASIO, which produces an annual unclassified statement to Parliament and attends Senate Estimates hearings (and Irvine regularly speaks publicly as well). The IGIS keeps commentary on ASIS to a minimum in public reports due to sensitivity. The oversight of ASIS by JCIS is non-public.

There are also complaints about the membership of JCIS: the Greens are not permitted to participate on the committee (although as part of Julia Gillard’s since-abandoned deal with Andrew Wilkie, he was appointed to the committee), and Labor’s committee membership is, apart from John Faulkner, made up of members from the Right, to the annoyance of Left MPs.

This non-public “accountability” for the overseas intelligence-gathering agency was imported by Menzies direct from the UK, where MI6 reports only to a hand-picked committee of trusted MPs.

There are always national security considerations that make accountability for intelligence agencies more problematic. But the lack of public accountability for ASIS and Warner’s blithe assurance that all is well makes for a starker-than-ever context for the government’s current proposals to dramatically ramp up its surveillance of Australians (and, inter alia, give ASIS greater scope to “cooperate” with ASIO domestically). The government’s appetite for information on us is voracious; its willingness to allow scrutiny of the agencies that will have that information minimal.

Peter Fray

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