Mike Burgess ASIO intelligence
ASIO head Mike Burgess (Image: AAP/Darren England)

Australia’s spy chiefs sure like to come out of the shadows.

Former defence secretary Dennis Richardson brought ASIO “out of the shadows”, according to Greg Sheridan, twenty years ago. Former ASIO head David Irvine was the “spy who came out of the shadows”, according to a sycophantic column on his retirement.

Successor Duncan Lewis was praised for being “no stranger to the public stage. As the official authority on Australia’s security he has, like his predecessors, been the public face of updates on the terrorist and foreign interference threat.”

As head of the Australian Signals Directorate, Mike Burgess boasted he was bringing the cowboy signals intelligence body — best known for trying to bug the Indonesian president’s phone — “out of the shadows”.

And as Lewis’ replacement as head of ASIO, yesterday Burgess rose to deliver a speech that — you guessed it — was about “ASIO stepping out of the shadows”.

The problem is, ASIO remains, as far as real accountability goes, not merely in the shadows but deep in a cave, beyond the reach of any scrutiny.

Giving the occasional speech, and dropping the occasional interview or scoop to one of the press gallery’s small club of national security reporters — who can be guaranteed never to upset the apple cart in the way a real journalist like Annika Smethurst might — is not accountability.

Australia has the worst accountability and oversight arrangements for intelligence agencies in the Five Eyes’ alliance.

Apart from the inspector-general of intelligence and security, who acts almost entirely outside the public or parliamentary gaze, there is no genuine oversight of our intelligence agencies.

ASIO (and AFP) has to front up to estimates, but can avoid any difficult questions by claiming they pertain to operational issues. And parliament’s intelligence committee can’t conduct inquiries into the operations of any of the agencies, no matter how egregiously they behave.

If you’ve seen The Report, the story of the US Senate intelligence committee’s investigation of the CIA’s torture program, such an investigation could never happen here.

There are still serious questions about the role of Australian security services in the kidnap-and-torture program run by the CIA under the Bush administration and MI6 under the Blair government — the answers to which are buried under confidentiality settlements with the victims, and the lack of any court or committee with the power to properly resolve.

While the Brits, the Canadians and the New Zealanders don’t have a system as rigorous as the US, where two congressional committees oversee intelligence, none of them accept the idea that parliament should not have a strong oversight role of intelligence services like as we do.

And despite Labor’s occasional mutterings about trying to change that, security bureaucrats like Burgess will continue to operate with no accountability.

Burgess’ speech raised some interesting questions. It grabbed headlines with his claim that there was more espionage activity in Australia now than at the height of the Cold War. He also pointed out that right-wing terrorism is a major threat, and there is a lot of activity by such groups in Australia:

“In Australia, the extreme right wing threat is real and it is growing. In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology.”

Burgess also said something that an ASIO head is unlikely have ever said before the Christchurch massacre: “While we would expect any right wing extremist inspired attack in Australia to be low capability, i.e. a knife, gun or vehicle attack, more sophisticated attacks are possible.”

That is, neo-Nazi and racist groups are capable of perpetrating attacks with the potential for large numbers of casualties.

This chimes with the US experience. The most recent domestic terrorism threat assessment issued by the government of Texas identified white supremacists as the greatest terror threat, and identified violent incels as an emerging threat.

The recent racist terrorist attack in Hanau in Germany appears to have been carried out by a US-inspired incel.

Not that Islamist terrorism has been left behind by espionage and white supremacism:

Tens of thousands of Islamic extremists travelled to the Middle East to join AQ-aligned groups and ISIL, including from countries which weren’t previously known as sources of Islamic extremists. And as we all know Australians joined that movement. There are now more Islamic extremists from more countries active in more places than ever before.

No one appears to have picked up on the real meaning of this statement.

That is, after nearly twenty years of the war on terror, and the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars by Australia alone in invading Middle Eastern countries, pumping up the budgets of the likes of ASIO, removing our most basic rights and imposing mass surveillance on Australians, “there are now more Islamic extremists from more countries active in more places than ever before”.

If that’s not a truly spectacular failure by politicians and security bureaucrats, it’s not clear what ever would be.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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