How do we keep an eye on our spies?
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How do we keep an eye on our spies?

Our intelligence services have never been more important to us, and democratic governance is part of their strength. But do we need to look at this again? Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

The director-general of Australia’s Secret Intelligence Service, Paul Symon, delivered a rare public address at the Lowy Institute this week to mark the service’s 70th birthday. His address was part of a commendable effort by Australia’s intelligence chiefs to build public knowledge of their activities. But it also highlighted the need for more democratic oversight of our increasingly active intelligence community.

Symon’s speech underscored how much is changing in the world of intelligence – but also that much remains the same. He outlined out how the oldest form of spying – human intelligence – is challenged by a “fundamentally digital era where our covert activities are increasingly discoverable. In this technological sandbox, authoritarian regimes are having a heyday … harnessing the booming IT economy to develop myriad forms of surveillance.”

But Symon made headlines for suggesting that, nevertheless, Xi Jinping’s unbounded rule was creating more discontent and, hence, more espionage opportunities because “officials, individuals unhappy with the trajectory of closed societies are … interested in a relationship”.

The reasons people betray their country haven’t changed much over the course of human history. Money, ego, compromise and coercion are recurring factors. But ideology and idealism have always been on the list, too. Counter-intelligence services the world over all look for the same warning signs. So, Symon hasn’t told China’s Ministry of State Security anything it didn’t already know.

But he was clearly sending Beijing a message about the structural vulnerabilities of authoritarian government. His main point was that “in closed societies top officials will always reinforce leaders’ biases and assumptions. That, after all, is the safest career path for them.”

Canberra wants Xi to conclude from Vladimir Putin’s disastrous assault on Ukraine that he should be more cautious about a military assault on Taiwan, and very sceptical of optimistic advice. Xi’s advisers, like those around the Russian president, have no incentive to say anything their leader doesn’t want to hear.


The importance of bipartisanship on national security is often exaggerated, but it’s crucial for viable intelligence oversight.

There is nothing normal about Canberra sending such a message via ASIS. That fact that Symon did so is indicative of the state of Australia-China relationship, the wider intensification of geopolitical competition, and the growing role of intelligence services in that contest.

Although most of this is taking place out of sight, Symon opened a small window by noting that “the nature of the contest is changing … I think that the demand signals for ASIS activities and operations will increase, not decrease.” Symon’s most noteworthy observations were that more and more authority had been delegated to him to approve operations over the past few years, and that he expects this to continue regardless of who wins the next election.

Time is of the essence

The director-general’s growing authority no doubt reflects the trust he has earned after many years of service. But it also points to the increasing need for speed. Time is of the essence in the constant competition short of war – in the so-called grey zone – which makes up more of modern statecraft.

How should a liberal democracy like Australia engage in this? In the competition with authoritarian governments, more democratic oversight of our intelligence agencies should be seen as playing to Australia’s strengths. A diversity of views is, as Symon argued, what makes our system better. But the fact is that democratic oversight of our intelligence services has not kept pace with their increasingly important role.

Australia, unlike the United States, has long preferred technical rather than parliamentary oversight of its intelligence activities. Although the media reflexively refers to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security as “powerful”, its actual authority does not come close to those of its US congressional counterparts. The government has twice rejected independent reviewers’ modest proposals to allow PJCIS to request the inspector-general of intelligence and security to inquire into the legality and propriety of operational activities.

America offers lessons in what to do and what to avoid. Congressional oversight of the US intelligence community was boosted in response to the CIA’s excesses in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, the intelligence community has been obliged to keep the House and Senate intelligence committees abreast of their activities, including covert action.

But the effectiveness of congressional oversight depends, crucially, on politicians refraining from using the secrets they are privy to for partisan advantage. The importance of bipartisanship on national security is often exaggerated, but it’s crucial for viable intelligence oversight. Unfortunately, those conventions suffered a breakdown in the Trump years from which they are yet to recover. It’s not unusual now for committee members to send out tweets apparently informed by their secret briefings.

Australia’s next government should use expanded parliamentary oversight to build trust, get ahead of partisan trends, and build a broader political base for the increasingly important work of the intelligence community.

Areas of expertise: Australian national security policy; International rules and norms; US foreign policy; the Middle East