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ASIO: in a world of its own

By Bruce Haigh - posted Friday, 2 March 2012

The mandate of security organisations such as ASIO are to secretly collect, collate and store information for use in briefing government and other agencies in order to protect citizens, institutions and government from harm by hostile persons and organisations. The requirement for secrecy and the guardianship of secrets confers power, particularly if the gathering of secrets, the interpretation of secret information and the knowledge of what secrets are held, are beyond the scrutiny of the parliament and people.

Those entrusted with these tasks must, perforce, be of the highest character and moral calibre. Well yes, except that we are all human and therefore flawed. Even the best intelligence analysts make value judgements, based on a world view developed as a result of a multitude of experiences, hurts, privileges or lack of them, overlain with personality strengths, weaknesses and disorders.

It might therefore be concluded that to leave secrets and judgements relating to those secrets in the hands of mere mortals, whether a democracy or dictatorship, without review, is at best an act of faith, foolhardy and potentially and probably dangerous to the reputations and lives of those under surveillance and scrutiny.


We need look no further than the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover or the NKVD under Lavrenry Beria and ill conceived transgressions of the sovereignty of nations by the CIA, MI5/6, Mossad and Pakistan's ISI, in fact the list is as long as there are intelligence gathering organisations. Many, if not most, also gather intelligence about their own citizens; the Gestapo was adept at that.

Where possible intelligence agencies like to gather their own information, but it is not always possible. In that event they must accept information from 'friendly' sources and then decide how reliable it is and/or how much weight to give it.

Australia accepts a range of information from other sources, particularly the United States, much of it electronic, it also accepts information from its neighbours with various caveats and degrees of reliability, which depending on likely outcomes, it must test, cross reference and try to verify.

Australia must do this because it cannot have people on the ground in every area of the world that is of interest to it. ASIO has a limited remit to operate offshore. By and large it must rely on Australia's offshore intelligence gathering organisation ASIS and the AFP, but limited resources means that they cannot be represented in all the places they would like to be.

Often agencies must rely on local informants, who may pass on information for money, from opposition a government, or hatred and fear of certain individuals and organisations. They may do this for revenge or safe passage or both.

Governments decide who their enemies are, they may be justified in their assessment or they may be wrong. In opposing the entry into mainstream society of blacks the South African apartheid government declared as terror organisations the ANC, the PAC and the Black Consciousness Movement. Charges were brought against prominent activists under the Terrorism Act and they were incarcerated for long periods of time for doing nothing more than seeking equitable change, included amongst these was Nelson Mandela, later a recipient of the award of the Order of Australia.


Through the years of apartheid ASIO maintained a close liaison with the South African Bureau of State Security, BOSS. They kept files on ANC, PAC and BCM activists and refugees living in Australia, as well as members of anti-apartheid groups. BOSS drove an agenda which ASIO was happy to comply with.

ASIO kept extensive dossiers on anti-Vietnam activists and demonstrators. These were used to prevent hard core activists getting employment with the Federal Government.

At the present time ASIO keeps a close watch on the Islamic community as a precaution against acts of terror by Muslim fundamentalists. ASIO's activities are clumsy, judgemental and said to be offensive to the Australian Islamic community, so much so, that worshipers at the Preston Mosque in Melbourne felt constrained to protest in mid February at alleged ASIO harassment of members of the congregation including attempts at ASIO recruitment.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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