Smoke pours from the Chilean presidential palace on September 11, 1973 (AP Photo/El Mercurio)

Spy agencies argued at an Administrative Appeals Tribunal hearing yesterday that disclosing material documenting their role in the 1973 Chile coup would harm Australia’s international relations and national security.

As Crikey reported on Tuesday the tribunal is hearing evidence in an application by a University of New South Wales international relations professor to get documents about the Australian Secret Intelligence Service’s (ASIS) involvement in Chile during the 1970s.

Professor Clinton Fernandes began presenting his case yesterday. He explained his application did not seek to name specific agents, but aimed to understand the nature of Australia’s involvement.

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The public submissions made by the agencies, meanwhile, give little justification for why the material is kept secret. And their evidence is largely kept secret because Attorney-General Michaelia Cash issued a public interest certificate on national security grounds at their request. The evidence given publicly is incomplete, and refers heavily to the secret material.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade deputy secretary Tony Sheehan, who previously worked for ASIO, submitted that the disclosure had a “real risk of damaging Australia’s security and international relations” but would elaborate only in confidential evidence.

“In seeking to explain how the risk of damage arises, it is necessary for me to directly or indirectly reveal the very information about which I am concerned,” he wrote.

“Jack Lowe”, an ASIS officer giving evidence under an assumed name, produced an affidavit which did little more than explain the role of ASIS. Historical information could damage national security by giving foreign powers “insights into ASIS’s areas of interests, methods and capabilities”, and detailing the number and type of personnel deployed in a particular situation.

Attached to Lowe’s affidavit is text of a speech by former ASIS chief Nick Warner and material on the history of the agency.

Former ASIO deputy director “Peter Darby”, also operating under an assumed name, provided a generic affidavit highlighting the need for the organisation to operate under “the strictest possible secrecy”. Much of it focuses on the need to protect the identities of current and former intelligence officers.

He also suggested disclosure of some of the exempted material would “reveal the existence of relationships, including the nature and extent of these relationships, between ASIO and foreign countries and/or their intelligence services”.

The relationship with the United States and the CIA, however, is pretty well documented. Darby does little to explain why, after nearly 50 years, this information would be so damaging.

All three affidavits referred to “mosaic analysis”, by which foreign intelligence services may piece together disparate, seemingly innocuous, pieces of information about our spooks to gain a strategic security advantage.

But any information on who would do this — and how information from the 1970s might be used to undermine Australia’s national security and foreign relations in 2021 — is in the confidential affidavits.

The hearing continues today, largely in secret.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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