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Dec 4, 2013

The war on whistleblowers -- it's come to Australia

The tactics of the Obama administration's war on whistleblowers and journalists have now been openly deployed in Australia. The Coalition government is on the attack.


To the extent that it hadn’t before, the war on whistleblowers and journalists that has been waged in the United States and the United Kingdom for the past several years has now been opened in Australia in the past 24 hours.

The Prime Minister’s attack yesterday on the ABC, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s unusual direct intervention with the ABC managing director Mark Scott, the smear campaign directed at Scott and The Guardian by loyalist media and then the remarkable news that ASIO had raided a Canberra lawyer’s office to seize information relating to an action brought by Timor-Leste in the International Court of Justice, are all profoundly concerning and all very familiar.

The Timor-Leste matter is entirely separate from the the ongoing Snowden revelations. The information was seized by ASIO agents in a raid on the office of Bernard Collaery, who was ACT attorney-general in the Kaine Liberal government in the late 1980s, authorised by current Attorney-General George Brandis under a remarkably wide warrant. It reveals that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service used Australia’s aid program to Timor-Leste as a cover for bugging the East Timorese cabinet to advantage the Howard government in commercial negotiations. The whistleblower who revealed this particularly shabby and highly damaging operation was also detained.

That whistleblower, said to be a former senior ASIS official, has not approached the media but is instead providing evidence in the legal action brought by Timor-Leste. In a crude attempt to prevent the former official from giving evidence in The Hague, his passport has now been cancelled. This particular dirty laundry goes back nearly a decade: the current head of ASIO, David Irvine, headed ASIS when it undertook this commercial espionage for the Howard government in 2004.

We’ve seen such tactics before, time and again, almost to the point of ritual, from the Obama administration in response to leaks by national security whistleblowers and their reporting by journalists: distract from the information revealed by attacking media outlets and journalists, suggest they are harming national security and should be prosecuted, attempt to discredit the revelations and use whatever legal measures are possible to harass whistleblowers and journalists, including, if necessary, anti-terrorism legislation.

The behaviour of the Abbott government in relation to the Indonesian phone-tapping story perfectly fits this pattern. While admitting that the revelations were a genuine story, both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull have attacked the ABC, which partnered with The Guardian in breaking the story. In a remarkable statement yesterday, Abbott suggested the ABC had breached its own act by “advertising a left-wing British newspaper”. When Katharine Murphy of The Guardian asked him whether the ABC’s partnering with Fairfax or News Corp to break stories was also “advertising”, Abbott refused to answer.

“Here, we can’t even have a parliamentary inquiry into our out-of-control intelligence agencies.”

Abbott’s claim that the ABC had breached its act distracted not only from further revelations about the willingness of the Australian Signals Directorate (formerly the Defence Signals Directorate, or DSD) to hand Australians’ data over to the US National Security Agency, but also from Turnbull’s blatant interference in the operations of the ABC. Turnbull called ABC managing director Mark Scott to criticise him over the Indonesian story.

This was a major breach of convention by Turnbull. Previous ministers for communications have communicated with the ABC through the chairman of the ABC board, who is appointed by government, not sought to directly influence the editor-in-chief, who is not. If Turnbull’s call to Scott was a formal rebuke, it was utterly inappropriate and breaches the ABC’s independence; if his call was an informal Malcolm-Mark chat, then it reflects a failure on Turnbull’s part to understand his responsibilities. If the Communications Minister has a problem with the ABC’s editorial decisions, he can do what Richard Alston did with his ill-fated Iraq War complaints — use the ABC’s, and then ACMA’s, complaints mechanism and write to the chairman.

Abbott also sought to play down the latest revelation about DSD, that the NSA believed it was happy (unlike Canadian agencies) to hand over metadata on Australians, as merely relating to “billing data”. That suggests either that the Prime Minister is profoundly ignorant about the most basic facts about surveillance, or eager to distract from the revelations.

The government’s attack on the ABC complements the ongoing News Corporation campaign against the national broadcaster. News Corp outlets are playing the same role as the establishment media in the US that have attacked WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald over Manning and Snowden’s whistleblowing, smearing both journalists and whistleblowers and claiming the exposure of US crimes are a victory for terrorists.

Also joining the debate have been intelligence sources eager to dismiss the Snowden revelations, although less eager to put their names to their denials. Speaking to compliant journalists, such officials are happy to breach confidence or break the law to dismiss claims that reflect badly on them, but are never heard from when it comes to telling Australians about practices that are directly harmful to our interests, such as the NSA’s extensive surveillance of Australians.

And lest anyone think this is all somehow because the Coalition is now in power, not a single thing that has happened in recent days wouldn’t have happened under Labor, except that Stephen Conroy would have known better than to call Mark Scott and Labor might have been reluctant to attack The Guardian as “left-wing”. But Mark Dreyfus, shadow attorney-general, is still opposing any sort of inquiry into the behaviour of our foreign-focused intelligence agencies. This morning Labor combined with the Coalition to block a Greens motion to require the Attorney-General to explain the extraordinary ASIO and ASIS raids yesterday. And nearly three months after the election, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security hasn’t even been re-appointed.

At least, in the US, such is the shock at the exposure of the NSA’s extensive and illegal surveillance that even the strongest national security advocates are calling for the agency to be reined in and for more oversight of its activities. Here, we can’t even have a parliamentary inquiry into our out-of-control intelligence agencies.


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32 thoughts on “The war on whistleblowers — it’s come to Australia

  1. PDGFD1

    Thank you Bernard, abundantly clear.

  2. Yclept

    Abbott is an absolute disgrace and Turnbull is showing himself as not much better. How did these buffoons steal power????

  3. Daly

    They told lies and comtinue to lie about the lies.
    Bernard understands how government works and constantly educates his readers. News Ltd and particularly the LibNats work at confusing their readers so that it all seems chaotic, etc etc.
    Christopher Pyne’s email to followers explaining the latest education funding (last night, or has it been superseded?) was a master lessonminmthis sort of obfuscation. Every sentence was a lie but only if you understood how things work. If not it could be read as reasonable! Creative writing of fiction, immediately broadcast by compliant press tv and radio.
    Thanks again Bernard.

  4. leon knight

    Good on Crikey and the ABC for holding the spotlight on these shonky behaviours – we should not allow Stasi methods to sneak in by stealth.
    I can’t see how this latest move by Brandis will turn out well for the LNP.

  5. zut alors

    Spot on Bernard.

    Malcolm has forgotten his ministerial manners – what a disappointment he has proven to be.

  6. Bronwyn

    It would be a public service for Crikey to lift the paywall on this.

    Downer’s role as lobbyist for Woodside also rates mention.

    What an appalling episode.

  7. Sharkie

    Thank you Bernard. Spot on.
    And no doubt the hacks at New Limited and 2GB will start to beat the “national security” drum while dreaming up wacky conspiracy about the ABC and anyone else who questions the actions of Brandis and Abbott.
    The coincidence line (that the raids and passport confiscation have nothing to do with the trial in the hague) is farcical. This country desperately needs media people to call BS on Brandis and Abbott. Why the ALP has gone all meek on this matter is beyond me.

  8. klewso

    “Buggery in the National Interest”?

  9. klewso

    What we’ve lost in the name of someone else’s self-serving definition of “Fighting Terror”?

  10. klewso

    So “Howard Ink, wanted to screw Timor of it’s inheritance to benefit an oil company, paying taxes”? What’s wrong with that? It seems perfectly all Right to lots?

  11. klewso

    Hoover had his G-Men – now we’ve got George and his Brandicoots?

  12. Kevin Herbert

    I’ll bet Brandis shares more than a passing ‘resemblance’ to J Edgar…..

  13. Hamis Hill

    To the extent that media organisations are information gathering entities, have Abbott and company already privatised the gathering of national security information in a secret arrangement with Murdoch?
    Phone tapping and all?
    Einstein remarked that information is nothing and imagination is everything; are Australian citizens to be deprived of imagination as well as information?
    Is no-one to “imagine” a secret “intelligence” deal between Murdoch and Abbott?

  14. zut alors

    Hilarious to see Palmer in QT today inquiring of the PM if the parliamentary offices are bugged. Abbott assured him he can speak in peace & has nothing to worry about. So, we can all rest safely in our beds forthwith. Chapter closed.

    Kevin Herbert @ #12: Thanks, that’s the best laugh I’ve had today.

  15. Newcastlegirl

    Leave our ABC alone!! when Murdoch came all out with the crap about Labor..it was freedom of the press. Well I presume the ABC should have the same freedom to give us the facts. The Abbott Government is not like by many, if there was an election tomorrow..I think they would be gone.

  16. Sam Reow

    New Ltd papers are setting the tone of public debate in this country and we’re all suffering for it, no wonder the ABC and SBS seem left-wing by comparison.
    Thank goodness for Crikey, the Guardian, the Conversation and other press that provide some defence to the normalisation of spying, mistreating refugees, climate denial, oppressive new legislation… HS readers don’t even understand why these trends are so confronting.

    Can anyone explain why George Brandis is A-G?

  17. Gary Gaunt

    Whatever happened to the “D” Notice and responsible reporting,

    Blind Freddy can see/hear the ABC agenda.

    Fearless reporting, really. Bullyboy tactics knowing that the Government puts them in their rightful place at the Governments peril.

    The educated and sophisticated art of interview previously practised by the old ABC seems to have disappeared, replaced by Rottweiler technique.

    Give me a break. They can do gripping stuff like the Keating interviews which has had me nearly change my mind about the man, but fail otherwise.

    They need to bring back Chris Masters for a Masterclass.

  18. klewso

    “National Security”? Dial 911.

  19. TheFamousEccles

    Thanks Gary Gaunt, that’s the best chuckle I’ve had today. “ABC agenda”, “Bullyboy tactics”, “Rottweiler technique”… Oh please stop.

    Rightards have stacked the ABC board with their own for decades, and yet they still bleat about bias! Gold, seriously.

  20. Steven Cutts

    Did anyone see Cory Bernardi frothing at the mouth about how the ABC is tax payer funded and has a too steep advantage over private media, Newscorp and Fairfax.

    Decoded, he really meant that the ABC has no business reporting the truth in comparison to the advertorialism, lies and cover-ups of Newscorp and the rest.

    Has there ever been a more blatant attempt at bipartisanship between the Coalition and private media? He completely gave the game away, the hammer has fallen right on his head.

  21. Michelle L Anders

    Right you are, Steven, but lest we ever forget that the situation would be hardly different if Labor were in office.

    It’s just the political nature of the beast that Australian foreign policy dances to a foreign tune and is in lockstep with US and Global interests regardless of who is in power.

    Many still fall for the allusion of Left/Right politics.

  22. dominic nagle

    Turnbull, now the scourge of free speech at the ABC, might be a tad embarrassed by a run through his statements in the Spycatcher case.

  23. Bruce Roberts

    Is that Turnbull, or Turncoat?

    Interfering with the ABC is the straw that breaks camel’s back. He’s shown his hand and along with it his nakedness.

    As an overview, it’s not that he’s representing Australia’s interest in covering any spying allegations, but in real terms he is representing a foreign surveillance agenda.

    Too much of a stretch? Then explain to me that “5 eyes”is not a foreign spying and surveillance agenda?

  24. klewso

    Turnbull is a self-serving gummy chameleon – the closest he comes to conviction was when a client cops one.

  25. Sharkie

    Get use to the conservative bleating about ABC bias. It’s only going to get louder and more hysterical, because it’s definitely part of the Liberals long game.
    Their behaviour in opposition, especially during the campaign, meant Australia voted for a government that was hopelessly compromised from Day 1. The Liberals can’t go one day without contradicting themselves or having an “emperor has no clothes” moment every week.
    Their only real solution is to whinge incessantly about media bias (especially from the ABC, Guardian and Fairfax) and shift blame to minorities, academics, greens, and of course the previous government. The big question is, will the general public wake up to their garbage.

  26. Harry Makris

    …This does not feel good….

    ..just had a terrible thought….


  27. condel

    Journo’s. Your the only thing we have left. If you give in we all give in. I am serious.

  28. klewso

    So, bearing in mind “Howard’s legacy”:how we are finally getting the stains out of “Howard’s Dirty Laundry” (AWB:NPA, Patricks:Woodside) how many of Abbott’s government were members of Howard’s, during that 11 years of Limited News “PR protection”?
    No wonder “Murdoch” is so hell bent on bullying these “detractors” into silence?

  29. MJPC

    The LNP is now in damage control, when it gets through the Hague and a ruling against the treaty how are the LNP going to manage the disaster control? Also, the big end of town by all accounts shafted both parties as Woodside chose to refine the fuel in neither East Timor or continental Australia; they are the real traitors ably abetted by Downer and crew: Revolution Now!

  30. Hamis Hill

    Are Murdoch, and his “Man”, spying on Australians?
    If the ABC is the only thing standing in the way of this latest example of the conservative fetish for privatisation, then it is understandable, is it not, that Murdoch and his “Man” are doing their best to get rid of the ABC.
    And they are doing just that, aren’t they?
    It is not paranoid if it is true, right?

  31. AR

    SamR – coz he is the least unqualified in the tory ranks, ie he is the best. Could be wrose, could be Turncoat. Remember how within months of saying “Howard will go down in history as the OM who broke this country’s heart” he became PPS top the Rodent? None so loathsome and servile as a one time radical who finally gets his arse on the green leather.

  32. Itsarort

    I remember Mordechai Vanunu who blew the whistle on the Israeli nuclear missile program in the 80’s. Mossad got a hold of him and he ended up back in an Israel gaol for about 20 years but not before he revealed that Israel had enough raw material for about 200 nukes!! The mind boggles…

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