This week Prime Minister Kevin Rudd officially opened the new headquarters for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in Canberra. It is situated in “defence row” — a rough crescent from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and the Australian Defence Forces Academy to the Department of Defence offices, the Anzac Parade entrance to the War Memorial, to ASIO and then to the offices of the Australian Federal Police. I was amused to see that someone, in a throwback to the Cold War, revealed in a government background release about the building that it had been dubbed “Lubyanka by the lake”. How many readers would understand this reference? I remembered — just — that it was during the Cold War the name for the headquarters of the KGB, the Soviet secret police in Lubyanka Square in Moscow.

The building will accommodate up to 1800 people and operate 24 hours a day. It is the most conspicuous and symbolic statement of ASIO in its history. The architect of Canberra’s Parliament House, Romaldo Giurgola, described the building as a “monster“. He criticised the headquarters’ glass façade on Constitution Avenue for ruining the sight lines from the War Memorial to Parliament House. “The new building is the wrong shape, in the wrong place,” he said. The Walter Burley Griffin Society called the building “intrusive” and “monolithic”. It argued that the building destroyed the design of the Griffin plan by degrading its symmetry and symbolism.

There is much other dinner party criticism of the building in which I detected a hostility to ASIO as much as an architectural critique. The building reflects ASIO’s large increase in staff numbers and budget after the national security legislation passed following the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001, in New York. Since the alarm caused by this and other bombings, ASIO’s budget has increased by 417%. The current 2013–2014 budget of ASIO is $453.56 million, up about $40 million on last year. For comparison, the Department of Defence budget increased by 101% during this period.

ASIO has to live with a difficult legacy. Its excessive activity about communism in the Cold War days brought it into ridicule among many Australians although it did ultimately reveal a spy network of Communist Party members in the Department of Foreign Affairs. In retaliation, the Communist Party claimed that it had a typist in ASIO and a friendly postmaster-general technician who did phone tapping work for ASIO. Tit for tat.

The historical image and difficult baggage that ASIO carries also includes the European memories leading up to World War II, especially in sections of the immigrant population who had terrifying experiences with secret police — the better known being the Gestapo and the KGB.

This history joins with ASIO’s record here during the Cold War, especially in its treatment of, and relationship with, trade unions, academics, writers and journalists.

“But people in the intelligence community hoping to avoid discussion still hide behind the lame reason of ‘not commenting on operational matters’.”

As the Cold War ebbed, ASIO had difficulty in realising that the anti-nuclear weapons movements such as Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the anti-conscription movement connected with the anti-Vietnam War movements were not extensions of the Communist Party. These movements involved hundreds of thousands of citizens, many of them anti-communist and certainly not advocates of the violent overthrow of the Australian government or political violence, although some may have engaged in civil disobedience against police during demonstrations and in other ways.

With the ending of the Vietnam War in 1975 there followed a period of relative inactivity for ASIO, although it has to be remembered that there were bombings and other political violence from the 1970s onwards that were not related to communism or to the terrorism we are experiencing now. The arrival of what we came to know as “boat people” in the late 1970s gave ASIO the job of vetting these newcomers.

Then came the War on Terror and the rise of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism, the astounding failure of the US security agencies and the subsequent destruction of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, then
the Bali bombings in 2002, which killed 88 Australians along with a 114 others in a nightclub, the train bombings in Madrid in 2004 (there is still debate over who was responsible for these) and the London bombings in 2005. A pattern of attacks on western countries had emerged.

Former attorney-general in the Howard government Philip Ruddock described the destruction of the twin towers as a wake-up call: “Well before September 11, we were at war; it’s just that we didn’t know it.” The word “war” is sometimes used by politicians to legitimise the behaviour of secret agencies by giving them the rationale of a worldwide emergency that then justifies the exercise of powers and restrictions on citizens normally permitted only within a country engaged in a “hot war”.

While the older European immigrant experience may be fading, it is now being replaced by the arrival of people from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, China and some South American countries who have seen the harm that secret agencies can do, even in a democracy. The Cold War and ASIO’s rather shocking behaviour during that period and the other “threats” with which it occupied itself during the Vietnam War should be taught to recruits as cautionary tales about the way a security organisation can be led to misbehaviour by governments that wish to create the impression that they are tough and by so doing, politicise ASIO.This historical memory combines with the public perceptions of espionage, which comes from a huge appetite for novels, films and television, whether it be the glamour of James Bond or the horror of Nazi Germany or George Smiley’s “circus”. The negativity in the media towards ASIO remains surprisingly strong. I have brought together a sampling of the tone of commentary about ASIO.

The usually measured and usually astute Richard Ackland, who publishes the law journals Justinian and the Gazette of Law and Journalism and writes a column in the Fairfax papers, wrote in the National Times (June 4, 2010):

“There’s always going to be a bogyman from whom we need to be protected — whether it be Germans, Japanese, commos, terrorists or boat people … History is riddled with false alarms … security agencies have … persuaded successive governments that they need more and more powers to protect us from the hobgoblin … The changes [contained in a government discussion paper seeking greater electronic surveillance powers among other things] will also clarify that ASIO officers can not only use ‘reasonable force’ to kick down your door, but also after they have kicked it down they are permitted to go ferreting through your home.”

The speech launching the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties campaign by Professor George Williams contained the strongest language I have come across (October 19, 2012). He described ASIO powers as “rotten to their core”. He said there had been “a frenzy of lawmaking in the past decade with fifty-four pieces of anti-terrorism legislation introduced — forty-eight of them under the Howard government”. He said there was no need for the new powers being sought by ASIO. “The new powers are more consistent with the apparatus of a police state, such as General Pinochet’s Chile, than the laws of a modern democracy. They have no place in Australia, they should be repealed.”

Philip Dorling in The Sydney Morning Herald, considering the proposed changes, said:

“The pull of technology and push of security will continue to radically diminish the realm of privacy. In some ways we will be ‘safer’, but privacy will be at the discretion of law enforcement, security and bureaucrats. With that will come a profound, qualitative change in the relationship between citizens and government that is yet to be considered by Parliament or the public.”

Dorling formerly worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, was a policy advisor to the Labor government, and a one-time visiting fellow at the Defence Force Academy. Dr Andrew Baker, a fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, in Sydney, wrote recently:

“The government wants to be your Facebook friend, follow you on Twitter, read your emails and text messages, and know which websites you visit. It then wants to file all that information for up to two years in case you are found to be a terrorist, crime lord or p-edophile. The government also wants your computer passwords and might even send you to jail if you refuse. Creepy.”

He says it is time to “de-friend” the government and to repeal some of the ASIO powers.

In fairness, our intelligence professionals are, by convention, unable to answer their critics, which leaves them open to distortions and misunderstandings. Maybe it is time for ASIO to begin engaging with the media and at conferences. There have been changes. Breaking with past practice, ASIO director-general of security David Irvine launched a publicity campaign of his own with a rare interview with the ABC to defend ASIO’s proposal to extend its powers to enable it to search phone and internet data and to exclude from prosecution ASIO officers found to be involved in some forms of illegal activities.

Irvine told the ABC’s Background Briefing that ASIO had experienced intelligence failures because of changing technology. “Today there are hundreds of different ways of communicating electronically and the law does not cater for those ways in the way it should,” he said.

Anyone who has watched the fine television series The Wire over its five seasons will be familiar with the technological changes that are transforming to a degree the nature of policing and, by extension, security agencies. In The Wire the police “nerds” develop the idea that tapping mobile phone conversations and text messages is more effective than kicking down doors and roughing up drug dealers. The central objection to the granting of internet investigation powers to ASIO is not that they need these powers to be effective but what, ultimately, is done with the intelligence gleaned without us knowing until it is too late. Email, text, blog and Twitter will be the new dark alleys and shady locations of old-world intelligence gathering. However, it has to be kept in mind that old-world intel will still be needed, people will still have to be arrested and questioned, and the arrest and the evidence will have to be tested to ensure, for a start, that the right people have been arrested for the right reasons in the right way and that the evidence garnered from the internet is being interpreted correctly. The New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption has these powers and has used them effectively in recent hearings.

But people in the intelligence community hoping to avoid discussion still hide behind the lame reason of “not commenting on operational matters”. When commenting on the alleged hacking of plans for the new ASIO headquarters by the Chinese, Irvine reassured citizens on  May 31, 2013, that security had not been compromised but that he could not comment any further because ASIO did not comment “on operational matters for reasons which are well known”. I am not sure I understand what an operational matter is, as distinct from the normal activities of ASIO, nor are they well known. Sometimes I sense that the term is used as a “shut-up” answer and contains a whiff of insolence.

*This is an edited extract from essay “The dark conundrum” in GriffithREVIEW 41, out this week