A history of the Australian Signals Directorate, if it lives up to the commitment of its author to be “warts and all”, should provide a fascinating account of the agency regarded as the poorest performer in the Australian Intelligence Community. 

ASD director-general Mike Burgess has commissioned the coauthor of the recent (and well-received) history of ASIO, ANU professor John Blaxland, to write a history of the ASD, previously known as the Defence Signals Directorate.

Any proper account of the ASD should explore how the agency’s national security role has been a cover for extensive commercial espionage aimed at helping companies in Australia and in our Five Eyes partners, often at the expense of the economic interests of our regional partners — and exactly the kind of espionage the Chinese government is routinely (and correctly) accused of by the Australian government. ASD is regarded as fighting a losing battle against Chinese hackers infiltrating major Australian companies and institutions such as universities.

The best insight into the activities of the ASD in recent years has been provided by Edward Snowden, who blew the whistle on extensive illegal surveillance activities by the US National Security Agency as well as detailing the vast extent of commercial espionage carried out by Five Eyes agencies such as ASD. Snowden showed that:

These are likely to play some role in Blaxland’s history.

“While I don’t want to be prescriptive in advance of viewing the records,” Blaxland told Crikey, “the Snowden revelations will have to feature.”

Given the abysmal lack of debate — both within the mainstream media and among major party politicians — about the activities and commercial espionage missions of Australia’s overseas intelligence collection agencies, a detailed history of DSD/ASD that identified the longstanding blurring of national security with corporate and economic interests might start to end the conspiracy of silence that greeted the Snowden revelations in Australia.

It is that willing confusion of the interests of Australian companies — like Woodside in the Timor Sea — with national security that has helped drive the constant expansion of the surveillance powers of Australia’s security agencies and the government’s war on those who would subject it to scrutiny.

There’s a line that runs directly from Edward Snowden revealing ASD’s wiretapping of the trade negotiators of Indonesia for the benefit of US corporations to the raids on journalists of recent months.

Peter Fray

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