The Public Deserves A Spy Inquiry Now


There is no proper parliamentary or other supervision of Australia's spy, security and police agencies

For example, Civil Liberties Australia wrote to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Dr Vivienne Thom, when the Snowden revelations broke a month ago. We asked her to hold an inquiry into what role Australia was playing in surveillance.

"Not my department," was her first reply. "Definitely not my department," was her reply to our follow-up letter asking, "If not you, who?"

Australia needs a full-blown, truly independent commission of inquiry into the security, police and spy agencies, and interaction between themselves and with the Australian people.

The size of our national security agencies has grown out of control, in both people and funds, over the past decade. There are numerous brand new bodies in the police-spook space in Australia, coupled with the existing ones doubling or trebling in size, like ASIO, which went from about 660 to 1860 staff in a handful of years.

There are now so many new players that it is inevitable they will soon be falling over themselves. They will fail to prevent a disaster because they are not communicating properly – that's the ongoing lesson coming out of America, from 9/11 through to the Boston marathon bombing.

When you add to that a very inexperienced Attorney-General, George Brandis, who seems to think spy raids are the first resort in an international legal dispute, you have security and surveillance out of control.

You can easily see how much out of control things are by how well we’re getting on with our near-northern neighbours: the relationship is poisonous with both Indonesia and East Timor, because of spying and surveillance by out-of-control agencies.

The truth is there is no proper independent supervision of any of the agencies, including police. To be meaningful, supervision must be external, and from the viewpoint of voters, not from the privileged access position of the politician and the bureaucrat.

People appointed to "supervisory" bodies in the security field are usually insiders, chosen from within the system, instead of being totally external.

They will have served in the military or security forces, or been on a board or commission or similar, or come out of the diplomatic service — where they've had roles involving intelligence activities.

From attending parliamentary committees on the spy, security and police agencies for the past decade, I can tell you with certainty that the vast majority of politicians, particularly those from the Coalition and Labor parties when in government, identify themselves with the officers of whatever agency is appearing before them, instead of representing the average voter and asking hard, independent questions.

The minute they become MPs, many of them think they are part of the establishment, and act that way instead of being representatives of the people.

Politicians assume the various agencies will behave properly. There is no close parliamentary supervision, no hard questions. And, as we now know, there is no reason to assume agencies will behave morally or ethically as Australians would wish.

The various agencies play the politicians off a break. They have full-time staff dedicated to keeping politicians quiescent. That's why you see MPs on visits to "warm and cuddly" facilities, like the dog handling branches of police and customs, where they can take their children and get their photos taken with puppies.

Then there's visits to the flashy, LCD-lit central command rooms with big maps of the world and moving red dots, along with dozens of computers to make sure the MPs realise they don't really know about all this stuff, and they should let the particular agency "just get on with the job".

The longer it is between open, public inquiries, the more "getting on with the job" departs from what most Australians would think was acceptable behaviour.

For example, very few people would think it reasonable that Australia used its spies and technology to get a commercial advantage in business negotiations with East Timor. Few people would think it reasonable to spy on the private mobile phone conversations of the president of a neighbouring country. Few people would think it reasonable to use ASIO to raid a lawyer's office over a commercial dispute in a world court.

If the current supervisory and political controls have allowed Australia security agency behaviour to sink that far, then obviously we need an open, public commission of inquiry to find out what else the spooks and their mates have done in our name, and to set limits on what they can do in future.

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