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.