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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 21:12 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 21:12 | SYDNEY

Snowden WikiLeaks and the future of espionage

8 Apr 2014 16:17

It was a treat for me to host yesterday's panel discussion on Snowden, WikiLeaks and the Future of Espionage. It was a lively panel which engaged in sometimes passionate discussion on the ethics of leaking, the practical and moral limits of intelligence-gathering, and the implications of spying (and getting caught) for Australia's relations with the world, especially Indonesia.

I was joined by former Four Corners reporter and Julian Assange biographer Andrew Fowler, former senior defence official Allan Behm (who also served as chief of staff to Labor's Minister for Defence Materiel, Greg Combet), and Indonesia specialist Greta Nabbs-Keller, who also served in the Australian defence department.

Here on The Interpreter, we're planning to continue the discussion we started yesterday, particularly on the question of oversight of the intelligence agencies. I want to pull out two quotes from Allan Behm to launch that discussion (40:40):


11 Apr 2014 16:24

I've already had the opportunity to argue that listening in on the wife of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (and the subsequent defence of these actions) is clear evidence that our intelligence people have lost that essential quality, their sense of judgment.

I was struck by Allan Behm's argument that revising the law will fix these problems. In everyday life, the law sets the perimeters on our actions, but we all have to constantly exercise judgment above and beyond the requirements of the law. Society can't function without the extra constraints imposed by good sense. International relations are just the same.

There are other judgmental issues. Is the intelligence valuable enough to justify both the cost and the risk of being caught out? Is there a cheaper or better way of gathering the information, say through conventional diplomacy?

We need an external inquiry to establish how our intelligence community lost its judgment and what ongoing supervision will be needed to make up for its demonstrated lack of common sense.


30 Apr 2014 17:56

It's 7:15am and you're in a conference room, the same room you sit in every working morning. At the head of the table sits the head of your country's domestic security service. Pick a country, any country. Into that room walks a group of analysts and field investigators, and they lay a new problem on the table: yesterday evening, they say, a friendly security service told us it is watching an extremist who just returned from Syria and is now recruiting people to fight there. That extremist has a small network of global contacts. He emailed one of those contacts yesterday. That contact lives here. In the US. The UK. Germany. Or Australia.

I've sat at that table, so let me fast-forward and tell you what happens next. The questions fly, fast and furious. Who is this person? Whom does he know? What is his network? Where is he getting money? Where has he traveled? Does he have weapons or explosives?


2 May 2014 10:03

It is little wonder that it was an Australian, Julian Assange, who set up the world's first secrecy leaking website, WikiLeaks. And it should be equally unsurprising that the world's greatest whistleblower is a US citizen, Edward Snowden.

The terms whistleblower and leaker are mistakenly used interchangeably. The difference is both large and instructive. The whistleblower makes a public stand. The leaker remains anonymous.

That US whistleblowers have the confidence to speak out has much to do with the right to free speech, enshrined in the US constitution's first amendment. In Australia there is no such right, so leaking is often the safest way to go.

When Assange created his leakers' website in Melbourne nearly 10 years ago, it was a creation of necessity. The identity of the leaker needed to remain secret for fear of retribution and in Australia there was every reason to be fearful. The Commonwealth Crimes Act (1914), which covers the release of unauthorised federal information, can lead to a seven-year jail sentence. 


5 May 2014 15:29

Revelations about mass intelligence gathering by the US and its allies serve the useful purpose of highlighting the need for, and proper role of, intelligence oversight in democracies. This essay provides a conceptual overview of some of the ideal types of democratic intelligence oversight. Variations may exist in how these ideal types are implemented in practice, but the underlying rationale for intelligence oversight mechanisms remain the same.

The fundamental difference between authoritarian intelligence operations and those conducted by democracies is that the former serve the regime while the latter serve society. Intelligence agencies in democracies answer to the government of the day but are not subjects of it. Instead, they can be considered to be commonweal organisations, much like fire services: while they are responsible to government in the first instance they serve society as a whole.