On a site the size of three city blocks and with floor space measuring 62, square metres, it is the biggest construction project Canberra has seen since the new Parliament House, which was the most expensive building in the Southern Hemisphere when it was opened by Queen Elizabeth in Questioning of the fact is routinely muted by the bipartisan consensus that national security must be protected, seemingly at any cost.
That world has spawned the phenomenal growth of the six agencies that make up the Australian Intelligence Community, of which Gyngell is nominally the head. As well as running ONA, which analyses incoming intelligence and advises the government on international issues, Gyngell co-ordinates the activities of the foreign intelligence collection services and chairs a monthly meeting of agency heads. In addition to the three civilian bodies there are three military agencies that come under the Department of Defence: Add to the mix the Australian Federal Police AFP , who are primarily responsible for law enforcement but have their own growing intelligence capacity, and Australia seems conspicuously over-serviced.
The US, by comparison, has no domestic intelligence agency; the CIA handles foreign intelligence, while the FBI doubles as domestic intelligence collector and law enforcer. Canada has only one agency with carriage of domestic and foreign intelligence. All of which leaves Australia with at least one more national security-cum-intelligence outfit than most of its counterparts.
Our intelligence agencies are also far more secretive than those overseas, affecting an air of subterfuge that sometimes borders on the comical.
The existence of ASIS, for example, was only publicly acknowledged in , 25 years after it was formed. The current director-general of ASIS, former defence department chief Nick Warner, declined to comment for this article, saying the head of ASIS has never been interviewed in the media although one of his predecessors, Alan Taylor, did hold a press conference in Compare this with the high public profile enjoyed by successive heads of the CIA.
ASIS has never issued one that I can find. Such a plethora of agencies, each jealously guarding its secrets, inevitably leads to overlap and duplication, along with rivalry, suspicion, information hoarding and turf wars.
There are myriad anecdotes to this effect. Assessing the performance of the Australian Intelligence Community is difficult when so little of its work is public.
He notes it would be virtually impossible here to write the kind of authoritative histories of intelligence that are routinely written in the US. Occasional glimpses behind the veil of secrecy are afforded by the odd terrorism arrest, which invariably take place in a blaze of publicity, or the highly publicised disasters that occur from time to time.
But it is still regarded with mild derision by some within the high-end agencies such as ONA. Some argue privately that separate domestic and foreign intelligence bodies are unnecessary for a country such as Australia in a globalised world. ONA emerged poorly from a —04 Senate inquiry into whether there had been a failure of intelligence prior to the Bali bombings, which killed people including 88 Australians. The focus of the inquiry by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee was whether Australians should have had more warning of an attack in Bali.
In this respect, the ONA analysts were spot on. ONA staff said they gave a further briefing, as requested, with detailed information on the threat in Bali; DFAT staff said ONA never got back to them at all, with one official testifying: But some question this solution. Gyngell says rigorous new quality controls have been put in place. Very formal reviews of all our judgements are done now, [whereby with] every judgement made, we look back over 12 months and see whether we were right or wrong, and why.
But I think the internal processes for review and contestability [and] the external interactions we have with other agencies within the Australian government make us better placed to avoid such mistakes. Gyngell agrees this is crucial. As roomy as a five-star hotel suite and with commanding views over leafy northern Canberra, if size were any indication then this would appear to be where the real power in the Australian Intelligence Community resides.
Its current occupant is David Irvine, an intelligence veteran who presided over ASIS for six years before being promoted to the more prestigious and relatively more public post at ASIO.
He has agreed to a rare interview with me because he wants the public to understand what ASIO does, and to make three specific points: There have now been no less than four occasions when I believe a mass casualty attack within Australia has been avoided only because of the good work of intelligence and law enforcement authorities.
Intensive recruiting has left ASIO with a workforce dominated by rookies in their twenties and thirties, which has its downsides, as commentators point out. We can only hope he is right because, commensurate with their expanded resources, ASIO and its officers have been entrusted with a suite of new powers that allow unprecedented intrusion into the lives of Australians who come into their orbit.
Since , no fewer than 45 new security laws have been passed — all but one of them under the Howard government — mainly dealing with terrorism.
The clause that most alarms lawyers and civil libertarians is section 34D of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act , which allows ASIO to detain people who are not suspected of any offence for questioning for up to seven days. Detainees are prohibited from revealing their detention or whereabouts to anyone, even their families.
He says ASIO has used the coercive questioning power 16 times since , but has never used its power to detain someone for up to seven days. Critics, on the other hand, contend that this argument shows the power is unnecessary and should be repealed. There have been extensive increases in the powers of surveillance.
Telephone intercepts have gone up massively. The last comparison we did showed that, per capita, Australia has about 26 times the rate of phone intercept warrants as the United States.
Here, some of the most high-profile terrorism cases, such as the convicted Melbourne terror cell and the case currently being tried over the alleged Holsworthy plot, have relied heavily on bugged conversations among the accused terrorists, which would not have been admissible in a British court. The veil of secrecy cloaks all court proceedings where national security is involved. Under the National Security Information Criminal and Civil Proceedings Act , whenever evidence deemed to impinge on national security is to be introduced, the attorney-general must be notified so the court can be closed to assess whether the evidence can be heard.
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