NATIONAL SECURITY: by John MillerNews Weekly
Is ASIO the Achilles heel of counter-terrorism?
, September 30, 2006
Previously in News Weekly (September 16, 2006), John Miller specified several essential security measures Australia must take to defend itself. In this article, he argues that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) itself, for a variety of historical reasons, is the weak link in Australia's fight against terrorism.At last, it appears that the Federal Government, Labor Opposition and Murdoch press are beginning to take the problem of terrorism more seriously.
On September 3, federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock issued his most serious warning to date.
Federal Opposition leader Kim Beazley attacked the Howard Government for being weak on national security and criticised it for not implementing reviews on aviation security or introducing a Coast Guard and a centralised homeland security organisation.
The most interesting development has been greater prominence given to national security issues by The Australian
newspaper. July 31, 2006 was something of a watershed, when it published an article by Middle East expert David Pryce-Jones, entitled "Revolutionaries push a new Pan-Arabism, based on Faith not state". In the ensuing month and a half, there have been regular articles on national security.
The University of Chicago's Professor Robert Pape recently visited Australia to address a number of audiences including police and security forces and the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security.
Professor Pape's major contribution appears to be an attempt to uncouple the religious aspects of fundamentalist Islam from suicide-bombers - a thesis with which this writer profoundly disagrees, at both a theoretical and empirical level.
Many would-be and actual suicide-bombers have displayed behavioural traits indicative of a fervent commitment to Islam, exemplified in the so-called "martyr videos". If any clearer demonstrations were required, the Islamic hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 - which ploughed into a Pennsylvania field, after a most remarkable fight-back by hostages - rolled the aircraft and dived into the ground crying out "Allah Akhbar!" ("Allah is great!").
This hardly smacks of a secularist approach, especially when those behind the 9/11 attacks appear to have been thoroughly indoctrinated by Islamic fundamentalist clerics and to give every indication of being extremely devout in the practice of their religion.Prime target
Professor Pape's parting gift to the Australian people was to declare that Melbourne could be a prime Al Qaeda target in September 2007 when an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference is due to be held in Sydney.
Director-General of ASIO, Paul O'Sullivan, has appeared on an unprecedented number of private and public gatherings to warn of the danger of terrorism.
Australia's security level remains at "medium" at the time of writing, despite the news from the United Kingdom of a foiled attempt to bomb trans-Atlantic airliners; the arrest of 23 suspects in connection with that plot; a raid on the Jemaah Islamiah school (allegedly a training establishment for terrorists) in Tunbridge Wells; and the news that Scotland Yard was investigating "thousands of suspects" in connection with terrorist activity.
The question has already been posed about the state of Australia's readiness (News Weekly
September 16, 2006), but a further series of queries remain to be addressed.
It appears to this writer that ASIO is at present the Achilles' heel of the counter-terrorist effort for reasons set out in the earlier article.ASIO - a matter of trust
It is axiomatic that any party governing Australia should have the utmost trust in its military, security and intelligence bodies. The same surely applies to the general community.
As the alternative government, Labor has always had many problems with ASIO. It comes down to two words - history
. Formation of the Organisation was foisted onto the Chifley Labor Government by the British and the U.S. towards the end of, and in the years immediately following, World War II. It was known that secrets were being leaked from Australia and this country was regarded as a liability to the Allied cause.
It was with some reluctance that Chifley established ASIO in 1949, shortly before his government fell from power. It was the newly-elected Coalition Government of Robert Menzies which replaced Justice Geoffrey Reed as Director-General with Colonel (later Brigadier Sir) Charles Spry the following year.
From the outset, ASIO faced implacable hostility from the Department of External Affairs (later to become the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, or DFAT) under its formidable Secretary, John Weir Burton.
The left wing of the Labor Party, along with the Communist Party of Australia and militant trade unions, were always at odds with the Organisation, for ideological and political reasons, especially when banning the Communist Party was considered an option by the Menzies Government and the naming of its members in public. To many - and not all on the left of politics - this was a move to U.S.-style McCarthyism.
To a certain extent, that hostility crystallised following the dramatic defection, on April 3, 1954, of Vladimir Petrov - third secretary and temporary MVD (KGB) Resident at the Soviet Embassy at Canberra - and his wife Evdokia.
This produced great hostility towards ASIO because Prime Minister Menzies was suspected of having used the announcement of the Royal Commission following the defection for political reasons, thereby denying the Labor Party, then led by Dr H.V. Evatt, victory at the federal election which took place shortly afterwards.
From early on, ASIO was perceived to be conceived overseas with little expertise of its own and widely regarded as a tool by which the ALP was denied government in 1955. There were also claims that the Organisation owed its first loyalty to the British intelligence service MI5. The general labour movement and communist-led trade unions did nothing to disabuse their members of this rumour which became truth by virtue of repetition and was taught as such in universities.
A further reason for the outright hostility to ASIO was a generalised anti-American feeling within the community which was fanned by Australia's participation in overseas military operations in Korea, the Malayan emergency, confrontation with Indonesia, the Vietnam war and action in Iraq (1990-91 and since 2003), not to mention the well-concocted myth that ASIO had conspired with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow the Whitlam Government in 1975.
Anti-Americanism became the dominant ideological theme within academia and the Left in general and among self-selected Australian elites. That attitude persists to the present day, especially with Australia's participation in counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Combe/Ivanov affair of 1983 and the subsequent Royal Commission fanned further resentment against ASIO. It matters little that the Commission found in favour of ASIO and the Hawke Government, that both had acted correctly, and that the best interpretation that could be placed on prominent lobbyist and former ALP national secretary David Combe's relationship with KGB officer and first secretary at the Soviet embassy in Canberra, Valery Ivanov, was that it was foolish in the extreme.
The startling number of Labor people, including the then Attorney-General Senator Gareth Evans, who believe that Combe had done nothing wrong, is quite remarkable.
From 1987 onwards, ASIO suffered several mortal blows. The move of the Organisation to Canberra, with heavy loss of experienced staff, started the rot, as the promised extra finances for people to move were scrapped. It was also a mistake of the first magnitude to place the headquarters of the security service in a location where hostile intelligence officers would have been able to identify the majority within a matter of weeks.
ASIO Director-General Alan K. Wrigley, who oversaw the move to Canberra, was succeeded by a series of directors-general whose previous careers were in DFAT, and there was a popular revolt by staff against at least one of these individuals.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism, there was much talk of a "peace dividend". This resulted in a systematic loss of staff, lowered recruiting standards, the cutting of staff ceilings, and an unprecedented federal police probe (Operation Liver) which revealed that ASIO had been severely penetrated by the late 1980s by Soviet and East European agents.The Coalition Government and ASIO.
It is folklore but widely believed that ASIO is a tool of the Coalition Government.
During the campaign against the Vietnam War, many ordinary citizens who demonstrated quite legitimately against Australian deployment were made the subjects of records and files. ASIO had been specifically directed by the then Prime Minister William McMahon to cover demonstrations and report on the activities of their leaders in an exercise that was usually depicted by the Left as "kicking the communist can".
The truth was that communists and their fellow-travellers were extremely active in the protest movement. This would normally have bought them to ASIO's attention, without any need for a directive from the Prime Minister, especially as there was defector information to the effect that the peace movement was being manipulated by the KGB and received its orders from the Soviet Communist Party.
However, with the advent, in 1976, of Justice Sir Edward Woodward as Director-General, ASIO indices were duly purged of the names of citizens exercising their democratic rights. The files on protesters were destroyed except for those whose actions brought them into contact with Soviet intelligence officers, or persons of security interest.
In Australia, from about this time onwards, the "peace" movement targetted the ANZUS alliance and various joint facilities around the country, namely Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia, which was a long-wave communication base for contacting U.S. nuclear submarines. Pine Gap and Nurrungar, which were part of the U.S. missile detection and communications monitoring system attracted blockades and attempts to invade the installations on a regular basis.
It is a matter of historical interest that a large Australian demonstration occurred at the same time as multiple demonstrations in Europe. ASIO knew from various sources, that the orders had come from Moscow, via the Soviet Embassy and communists in the peace movement. This was one clear example of a chain of command.
In many respects, the 1975-83 Coalition Government of Malcolm Fraser was consistently on the defensive in dealing with such matters. It granted few briefings to a sceptical press and hostile academics who, in turn, achieved a great deal of success in forging anti-American hostility.
To compound their errors in government, the Coalition later, when in opposition, failed to defend ASIO fully at the time of the Combe/Ivanov affair.
It would have been fitting for the Coalition to have thrown its support behind the Hawke Labor Government's expulsion of a KGB officer Valery Ivanov. Instead, the then Liberal Opposition leader, Andrew Peacock, seemed more concerned about protecting the civil rights of David Combe than acknowledging Ivanov's subversive activities and the threat it posed to Australia's security.
It remains to be said that many on the Left hate ASIO and will never be convinced that it is useful and not a secret police. It is ironic that ASIO has only been given powers of arrest and detention since the declaration of the War on Terror. Had those powers been available during the days of the Cold War, there could well have been some very interesting court cases.
As this writer has stated repeatedly, it is only a question of when
a terrorist attack is carried out on Australian soil. Therefore, the public must have full confidence in the forces protecting the country, its infrastructure and the populace in general.Either the current Coalition Government or an incoming Labor administration should give high priority to abolishing ASIO and amalgamating it with the Australian Federal Police, to form an FBI-type organisation, having divisions reflecting the current responsibilities of existing bodies
This would result in optimisation of resources - financial, human and technical - and create an organisation more suited to a post-Cold War world. It would, above all, remove the stains and stigmata of history caused by ASIO's activities in the public domain or hidden in archives.
Then it would be appropriate to have a dispassionate history of ASIO written, rather than the ill-informed and biased material found on many bookshelves and lodged in the consciousness of successive generations.- John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.