Spies like us


Black gloved hand on a computer keyboardProtecting the nation's security is widely acknowledged as the 'first duty of government'. The sovereign state's responsibility to ensure collective security (safety and law and order) is at the heart of the social contract and the individual's reciprocal obligation to eschew resort to force.

In a liberal democracy where the government derives its authority by and is held accountable for representing the will of the people, the balance between state powers and individual rights is defined in law. Because many national security activities are undertaken in secret it has been necessary to establish special oversight arrangements to ensure proper public accountability. Government representatives routinely refuse to publicly comment on security and intelligence matters because of their sensitivity.

Australia's unique national security architecture has its foundations in the foresight of Justice Robert Marsden Hope and various law reform bodies established by the Whitlam Government in the 1970s. Under a Westminster system of checks and balances the equilibrium between national security and citizens' rights has been maintained through structures and processes that deliberately separate advisory and executive functions; information collection and analysis tasks; domestic and foreign intelligence activities; and military/policing/intelligence roles.

Key principles underpinning these arrangements include extensive legal protections for Australian citizens, and a clear distinction between defending against specific threats to national security within Australia and aggressively pursuing our broader national interests overseas. In stark contrast to explicit legal and ethical constraints on defensive security intelligence activities within Australia there are limited controls on offensive foreign intelligence operations overseas. Legislation recognising and regulating Australia's foreign intelligence organisations was only passed in 2001 (the Intelligence Services Act).

The author of the 2011 Independent Review of the Australia Intelligence Community recently highlighted the potential for zealous and expedient action to displace rules-based protocols in critical operational situations. In reality utilitarianism (ends justify the means) is widely assumed to be a defining feature of the foreign intelligence operations of virtually all nations who assert an unqualified right to advance their national interests through any and all clandestine means, irrespective of international law and issues of national sovereignty.

This clearly represents a gap between the principled, civilised and diplomatic public posture of nations and the reality of expedient and aggressive covert action.

Recent revelations by an NSA contractor have exposed the extent to which this gap has widened, with new technologies apparently providing some advanced countries with virtually unlimited opportunities to monitor and collect electronic communications across the world. While the ostensible justification for the development of ubiquitous electronic surveillance capabilities is counter-terrorism, the greatest beneficiaries may be private business interests gaining a competitive commercial advantage in a global free market.

There are a range of reasons why secrecy blankets national security matters. Obviously operational effectiveness could be compromised through the disclosure of specific activities and capabilities, degrading advantage and negating the benefit of forewarning. But the government also wants to avoid difficult and awkward questions about the legal and ethical dimensions of offensive foreign intelligence operations that have the potential to damage international relations and undermine trust and constructive collaboration between nations.

The recent observation by a close Asian ally that 'spying on friends is amoral' belies an apparently growing gap between the illusion of civility and honesty and the reality of our suspicious relations with 'foreigners'. Responding to the controversy about ubiquitous electronic spying, a representative of the Obama administration recently observed that it is important that 'we don't do it just because we can'.

Are these sorts of intelligence activities consistent with Australian values, and do they enjoy the community's endorsement as legitimate and accountable government functions? It is an indication of the secrecy and sensitivity surrounding national security matters that such questions are characterised as 'unpatriotic' by some. In such an environment it is virtually impossible to have an informed and nuanced public discussion about these important and complex ethical issues.

The government treats the community as naïve, but beyond regularly raising the ill-defined spectre of terrorism seems reluctant to openly engage in a public discussion on the rationale for an expansion of the secret state.

Bill Calcutt headshotBill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the National Crime Authority for more than 20 years. More recently he has worked as an associate lecturer is postgraduate security studies at an Australian university. He retains a strong interest in governance, ethics and accountability.

Keyboard image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Bill Calcutt, Indonesia, spies, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

First-class analysis by a former intelligence professional. Eureka Street at its best. Thanks to author and editors.

Tony kevin | 22 November 2013  

In recent years all they have done is discovered children from Sri Lanka are a threat to our security, kidnapped Dr Al Haque and helped to fit up Dr Haneef.

Marilyn | 22 November 2013  

Just look at the lollies' language - 'homeland security', operation sovereign borders', illegal arrivals', and so on. Is it any wonder that our spooks are out of control?

Ginger Meggs | 23 November 2013  

ask Dr Haneef what his opinion is of our spying professionals.

walter p komarnicki | 25 November 2013  

Not so sure about the "global free market" aspect. With quotas, embargoes , import levies etc. It seems that all is fair in love, war and international trade. Though spying on the national leaders does seem a little over the topt it's time to hang up the boxing gloves and apologise and resume business as usual.

David | 25 November 2013  

Mr Calcutt's bionote says that he "worked as an associate lecturer in postgraduate security studies at an Australian university". The wording suggests that he may be still undercover. Can you confirm or deny please?

Ajit Randeniya | 01 December 2013  

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