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Australia's new secret police


Cover of book 'Maralinga'

When Greg James QC recently launched Frank Walker’s book Maralinga on British nuclear tests in Australia, the former NSW Supreme Court judge said the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation was involved in an associated program to collect the bones of dead children without the parents’ permission.

Jones later explained that he obtained this previously unpublished information, although not precise details, while representing military veterans exposed to radiation from the tests in 50s and 60s. However, the book provides a powerful reminder of the harm that can be done by using national security to conceal indefensible behaviour.

Walker sets out how 22,000 bones, mostly of babies and young children, were removed from corpses as part of a secret program to examine the effects of the radiation, which the tests spread across large parts of Australia. The program, that began in 1957 and lasted 21 years, was kept secret until 2001.

Walker says the grieving parents, in the overwhelming majority of cases, were not asked if the bodies of their children could be used for scientific studies relating to the development of nuclear weapons. The book also gives harrowing accounts of the experiences of servicemen and technicians who were exposed — in some cases deliberately— to dangerous levels of radiation without their permission. All were warned they would be severely punished if they said anything about what happened.

This is only one of many examples of the disturbing consequences of excessive secrecy in the name of national security. President Kennedy is a rare example of a politician who acknowledged that suppressing information can actually damage national security, as occurred in 1961.

New York Times reporters subsequently revealed that Kennedy intervened to get the paper to withhold sensitive details from a report about the imminent invasion of Cuba by CIA sponsored exiles in April 1961. The invasion was a disastrous failure that contributed to Cuba’s willingness to host Soviet nuclear-armed missiles, culminating in an extraordinarily dangerous nuclear stand-off with the US in 1962. Times executives said Kennedy later told them, 'If you had printed more about the [CIA] operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.'

Numerous official inquiries and media reports have shown that highly secretive bodies will abuse their powers in the absence of strong checks and balances. Undeterred, the Coalition and Labor parties have backed a new law that imposes 5-10 year jail sentences on anyone who reveals anything about what ASIO designates a Special Intelligence Operation. This prohibition covers exposing murder, endemic incompetence or dangerous bungling. The loosely worded law covers ASIO officials, agents and 'affiliates'. The latter could include other Australian and overseas intelligence agencies, police forces and special military squads.

The law removes the long-standing defence that publication in the public interest can be legally justified. The US does not have an equivalent law. These days the mere utterance of the words 'national security' seems to mesmerise mainstream Australian politicians, such as the Attorney General George Brandis, who normally see themselves as resolute opponents of the unconstrained expansion of state power.

In this case, journalists and others who report on stuff-ups and abuses of power can’t even know whether they are committing a crime — ASIO will not say whether a Special Intelligence Operation exists. Bank robbers at least know they are breaking the law.  

Australian media reporting has never resulted in the death of any intelligence operatives or undercover police. In contrast, far more people have been killed as a result of intelligence operations being kept secret. This is not a fanciful concern when the Australia’s overseas intelligence partners assassinate people. If the CIA wants to kill someone in Spain, for example, it could ask ASIO to use its coercive questioning powers to force an innocent relative in Australia to reveal the target’s location.

Intelligence information is often wrong. Identities can be confused, intercepts misconstrued and informants give false information about rivals. This is one reason police are not allowed to assassinate people suspected of committing a crime.

If it were a crime at the time to report on ASIS operations, the media could not have informed the public about the 1983 folly in which masked ASIS trainees ran around the Melbourne Sheraton, armed with silenced machines guns, sledge hammers and hypodermic syringes, recklessly indifferent to public safety. Likewise, the new law could be used to suppress future media reports about a similar injustice to one where a NSW Supreme Court Judge Michael Adams said in 2007 that two ASIO officers 'committed the criminal offences of false imprisonment and kidnapping at common law'. No one in ASIO was subsequently charged.

Originally, ASIO was purely an information gathering body with no power to detain people or compel answers to questions. It now has these powers, without the safeguards that apply to police investigations of serious crimes where they must identify themselves can’t compel answers. As others note, Israel’s security service does not have these ASIO powers. In this context, one former ASIO officer privately told this writer that he feared  the changes 'would turn ASIO into a secret police agency'. 

Brian TooheyWalkley award winning journalist Brian Toohey is a columnist with the Australian Financial Review.

Topic tags: Brian Toohey, ASIO, national security, CIA, Maralinga, Kennedy, intelligence, secrecy



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Existing comments

Essentially I agree with what Brian Toohey has written. Excessive secrecy and censorship can lead to abuses. As far as possible, transparency and openess should be our guiding principles. However, I have not found Eureka Street's moderators living by these standards. Far too often for my liking my posts have been modified to remove views that they obviously don't like. Nothing, in my opinion, was untruthful or misleading. The information I included was readily available on the internet. I suspect that what I was highlighting did not fit the preferred editorial narrative. I find it infuriating when a phrase or a whole sentence are deleted. I would almost prefer that they don't post what I have to say at all. At their worst, the moderators have distorted the central point of my posts. This has only happened rarely, but it is a cause for grave concern. Other posters have praised Eureka Street for including a diverse range of views and opinions. My own experience does not allow me to agree wholeheartedly with this assertion. In fact, I would appreciate it if one of the moderators were to write an article on what standards guide their moderating.

John Ryan | 09 October 2014  

Distressingly insightful, incisive and well said.

Noel Kapernick | 10 October 2014  

A good report. Why then have I not read of this development on the larger public media?

Tony Knight | 10 October 2014  

What a restrained, moderate assessment of Australia's terrifying new anti-terrorism laws and their construction of a complete wall of silence around our spy agencies and their activities, including the secret detention and imprisonment, in secret, for unspecified, undisclosed 'offences' that need never be precisely identified, if at all; so our thanks go out to Brian Toohey - and Eureka Street of course - for raising the issue. Is it not a moral one? It coincides with recent questioning of the role and purpose of Australia's Catholic newspapers. A coverage of extraordinary issues of this sort, for what ends, could be part of the answer - and a heading such as "terror hysteria" would not be out of place.

Brian Davies | 10 October 2014  

Re: ASIO's new "coercive questioning powers". In his analysis of the USA treatment of "terrorist" suspects in G Bay, Cuba, Michael Mori spoke of the USA's "enhanced interrogation" (torture) powers used by the US military. Mr Abbott is taking Australia down a similar road where international conventions barring torture are outlawed. This should not surprise anyone who observes how Scott Morrison allows Manus Island & Nauru immigration "gulags" to be run. And I guess people like our PM and some of his ministers still sit up in the front seats at Church. John Cronin, Toowoomba Q

John Cronin | 10 October 2014  

Finding the balance between law enforcement and the rights of the individual is always shifting. No one agrees with an unaccountable law enforcement agency but by the same token no one would support an agency that did act upon intelligence which threatened our safety and security.

Leeton's Finest | 11 October 2014  

Worrying. Period.

Cit Er | 13 October 2014