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Savvy terrorists and changing security issues have forced our intelligence agencies to pump huge money into funding and recruitment. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

ASIO and other intelligence agencies reach for the spy

On the silver screen, before the feature film, runs an ad for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). There’s a close-up of an auto-rickshaw. “This is not your ordinary company car,” explains the voice over. It cuts to a shot of a bustling Asian street, jammed with motorbikes. “This is not your average peak-hour traffic.” And so on and so on through glamorous twists on the humdrum aspects of working life. “Start an extraordinary career,” it suggests.

It wasn’t always like this; wasn’t always that our intelligence agencies would publicly advertise – in cinemas and newspapers, on television – and glimpse all of Australia as a recruitment pool. “You didn’t apply, you were tapped on the shoulder,” Dr John Blaxland tells me. Blaxland once worked in military intelligence, as chief staff officer at the Joint Intelligence Operations, and is now a senior fellow at the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. He has also completed volume two of the official history of ASIO, due for publication next year. “Back then the skills required of an officer was just people skills. Boozy-lunch people skills. And your recruitment had a lot to do with who you knew. That’s changed. They advertise publicly, attracting technologists and those with foreign language skills. The quality has improved.”

'Phenomenal' intelligence sector growth

The cinema ad is just a small part of the “phenomenal”, “explosive” and “frightening” growth of intelligence services since 9/11 – descriptions put to me by various experts and former officers. Australian intelligence services have not only been growing, they’ve been reimagined. They have also been subject to increasing mechanisms of oversight. The question is whether accountability has grown commensurately with this increase in size and power.

The Australian Intelligence Community (AIC) is the cosy umbrella term given to our collection of services. The AIC consists of six agencies: the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), responsible for domestic intelligence and answerable to the attorney-general; ASIS, responsible for foreign intelligence and answerable to the foreign affairs minister; the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), which collects foreign signal intelligence and is operated within the Department of Defence; and the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation (AGO), which deals in satellite imagery and, like ASD, is answerable to the defence minister. The other two agencies are analytical: the Defence Intelligence Organisation (formally the Joint Intelligence Organisation), and the Office of National Assessments, an independent body that briefs the prime minister and certain cabinet members. Not included in the AIC is the Australian Federal Police, who one expert described as now having “quasi-FBI duties, and who do their own intelligence – they’ve actually subsumed former agencies”.

Since 2001, the size and budgets of these services have more than trebled. In 1999, ASIO employed 565 people and had an operating budget of $66 million. Today, staff number about 1800 and enjoy a budget of $444 million. ASIS does not publicly reveal staffing levels, but its budget has increased in the same period from $42.5 million to $258 million. Blaxland explains this increase is not solely the work of political convenience. “Intelligence agencies are much bigger because the accountability framework is much bigger. It’s incredibly labour intensive. That’s one reason. Another reason is that security issues have morphed. In intelligence, you need to keep your successes secret – but Snowden and WikiLeaks have made that difficult. ISIS in Iraq, for example, is savvy at learning countermeasures. They read WikiLeaks. They know about certain strategies now. So intelligence gets harder and more expensive.”

Dr Andrew Davies is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and spent more than a decade at the Department of Defence. He explains how the skills and priorities of intelligence have shifted since 1990. “During the Cold War, those working on terrorism were a niche. It was just a handful of people. For a long time, we had state-based intelligence targets in the Soviets. It was easier to track. Terrorist targets are a much more complex and difficult target – and so it’s much more costly. I think, broadly, oversight of this growth in intelligence is good. There are robust mechanisms – ministerial, parliamentary, statutory checks. We have no constitutional protection like the United States – but that’s not sufficient anyway, as we’ve seen with the excesses committed there.”

British models

In the conception of our spy agencies – and their staffing – Australia adopted Britain’s patrician arrogance. The right school, the right politics, the right parents. This secret tribal faith was responsible for Britain’s greatest security embarrassment – the defection of Kim Philby. Cambridge educated, Philby was a boozy charmer celebrated by the self-congratulatory upper class that made up Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6. Philby enjoyed a meteoric rise in the agency, posted to Washington and liaising with the CIA. His mates protected him from suspicion, incapable of believing that he might be working for the Russians. When Philby defected to the USSR in 1963, he had been plying the KGB with intelligence for 30 years. “We modelled ASIS after the Brits,” Blaxland says. “We weren’t at odds with our Western counterparts in not having legislative grounding for these agencies. You operated under the direction of the prime minister. And that’s all. It’s just what you did back then. But things change.”

Robert Menzies established ASIO in 1949, loftily and without accountability, just as the Westminster system encouraged. It wouldn’t be until 1979 that it would come to be legislatively defined by an act of parliament. ASIS was conceived in even greater secrecy, in 1952, and again without any mechanism for oversight. It was small, clubby, and contemptuous of communism and the Labor Party. Few people knew of it, and it wouldn’t be until the late 1970s that its existence was publicly admitted. Like ASIO, it operated without any legislative definition for decades – it wouldn’t be until 2001 that an act would ground it, describing its parameters and responsibilities. Back then, the origins of these services bore the same proud, patrician heritage that had shielded Philby. “Things go pear-shaped, and reform happens,” Blaxland tells me. “Our intelligence system has benefited from an accumulation of mistakes. It’s placed us in an enviable position – though it’s not perfect.”

ASIS speaks

Forward to 2012, to something that had never happened before. Never, in ASIS’s 60-year history, had its leader made a public address. That lengthy embargo was fleetingly lifted by its director-general, Nick Warner, in a 20-minute speech marking ASIS’s diamond anniversary. Warner opened with a cursory history of his agency’s formation. In neutral tones Warner sketched the intense secrecy and British influence of ASIS’s origins. He then drearily enunciated the “changing role of ASIS; the vital importance of risk management and the positive impact of robust accountability processes; and the changing international order over the next 10 to 15 years.”

One of the remarkable things about government language is how imperiously unresponsive it is to the things it describes. Whether the subject is accountancy or spy-craft, the same dread gas of “management speak” is released. And while the cinema ads may have promised a unique exoticness, here Warner was suggesting the delivery of “products” among “challenges” while maintaining a “contribution across a wide spectrum”.

Warner never returned to the clubby origins of the agency he was once rejected from as a young, hopeful candidate. He offered the history of ASIS much like the witless inscriptions of trivia found on packs of cigarette papers. They were never reckoned with; never thoughtfully examined. Our patchy arc of unchecked old boys to a supervised, but increasingly powerful, meritocracy was unmentioned.

What makes a good recruit

When I worked in Canberra it was a limp but continuing parlour game to guess the identities of spies. Employees of the attorney-general’s office, or the departments of defence or foreign affairs were subject to jesting, unforensic prods. It was assumed that some colleagues in those departments were really employed by the AIC. No one knew anything, but we believed that spies were in our midst.

Except, we knew it would be like most other government business. A world of “products” and papers. I have spoken to one person who proceeded to advanced stages of recruitment with one of the agencies, eventually invited to their secret training camp to engage in exercises with other potentials. “The secrecy got to me. I’m glad I wasn’t selected. You would never be able to discuss your work with people. You would eventually have to lie to people. There are those who can do that easily – they’re different to us.”

In Warner’s anodyne recital, he stressed ASIS’s core values of “integrity, honesty and trust” which were partially qualified as not using violence, blackmail or threats. Comforting, perhaps, but intellectually stultifying. It is not a rejection of ASIS’s work to say that the recruitment of people for whom duplicity is effortless – can be effectively subsumed by professional devotion – is crucial. We need these people. But the employee profile is far more vexed and interesting than the one suggested by the corporate trilogy of “integrity, honesty, trust”. They need people who are those things to them, at the expense of everyone else they know. It requires a partitioning of self – and a lifelong maintenance of that split.

Massive funding increase

The increase in funding has been dramatic, subject to a slight lull in recent years, but the “spigot is being turned back on”, according to Blaxland. Future budget figures “will show another spike”.

ASIO’s spend on recruitment advertising is up, too. In its yearly report, the agency wrote: “Expenditure on recruitment advertising for difficult-to-fill roles increased from $317,729 in 2012-13 to $599,739 in 2013-14. Since the implementation of this new advertising strategy [we] attracted 1049 applications, compared with 638 applications for the previous campaign – an increase of approximately 40 per cent.”

I asked Blaxland if September’s decision to raise the national terror threat to “high” had economic ramifications. “It’s costly, yes. You move to high and you have additional security. I’m at Parliament House a bit, and you can see the increased security there. Airports. There’s more work. That comes with a cost. It’s not budget neutral.”

Perhaps the increased powers and money accurately reflect an increasingly complex task. But the near-exponential growth shows no sign of abatement. What hasn’t been properly explained is why, after 13 years of steady enlargement, there still aren’t adequate powers or resources. A muzzled press doesn’t help. “My instinct is towards civil liberties,” Andrew Davies tells me. “And a free and tenacious press is fundamental to that. It mustn’t be crimped. Of course, it’s an industry in some decline. And then the new legislation on reporting intelligence issues is key here. The attorney-general’s assurance that it will be used for good, not evil, is not adequate.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 22, 2014 as "Reach for the spy". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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