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Tuesday, 15 September 2020 09:16

Spy agencies should communicate better with Australians about matters that affect the public

Spy agencies should communicate better with Australians about matters that affect the public Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Australia has the best communications technology available for government and private entities to ensure that measures taken within the country are broadcast widely, especially if they could affect the security of its citizens overseas.

Given that, it is mystifying why the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Federal Police did not make public the fact that it had questioned four Chinese journalists on June 26 and cancelled the visas of two Chinese academics.

Relations between Australia and China, which buys 40% of its exports, have hit their lowest point yet, with issues like the banning of the Chinese telecommunications equipment vendor Huawei Technologies from bidding for 5G contracts.

There have been a number of demonstrations of the fact that the same security model as in 4G — separation of the core and the radio access network — is possible in 5G. But Australia has insisted otherwise — despite evidence to the contrary — and gone ahead of the ban.

With Huawei being the most visible Chinese company on the world stage, it has been an affront both to the government and the people of China.

Australia could, thus, have publicised the interrogation of the Chinese journalists in a media-savvy way. That did not happen. Instead, the way that the public and the world at large learnt of it was when two Australian journalists in China, Bill Birtles of the ABC and Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review, fled that country after they were called in for questioning over the arrest of a third Australian; the frightened pair took refuge in their country's diplomatic compound before a way out of China was negotiated.

The pair were questioned about a third Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, who has been detained by Beijing.

That the AFP and ASIO have no objection to publicising their activities when it suits them is illustrated by the fact that the same day, a raid on the home and offices of NSW Labor backbencher Shaoquett Moselmane in Sydney had the media in attendance. The local news agency AAP issued pictures of AFP officers entering the MP's residence early in the morning.

Apart from the lack of openness in the matter of the raids on the Chinese citizens, this is a dangerous indication that law enforcement and intelligence agencies are attempting to influence Australia's foreign policy, something that is endemic in the US.

ASIO was set up by the Americans. A former prime minister of Australia, the late Gough Whitlam, grew alarmed when he discovered that it was keeping tabs on politicians. His attorney-general, Lionel Murphy, even ordered the Australian Federal Police to raid the ASIO. This was in the 1970s.

Both ASIO and the AFP were aware that there could be repercussions for Australians in China and have said so openly, after their actions against the Chinese in Australia were revealed. Additionally, prior to this the US and China indulged in tit-for-tat embassy closures (in Houston and Chengdu) and also expelled journalists this year. These expulsions were publicly announced by the two governments when they happened.

It does not take much intelligence to reason that if Beijing acted like this when the US was involved, then it would certainly do so when Australia, a minnow by comparison with the US, acted in similar fashion.

Some journalists have been running interference for the Australian Government over exposing its citizens to danger in this way; patriotism, it has been said, is the last refuge of scoundrels. The fact is the safety of Australians should not be jeopardised.

In the US, there are numerous ex-intelligence officials who appear as talking heads on cable news shows, pushing the public view on issues this way and that. Additionally, the intelligence and law enforcement agencies have not shown the slightest reluctance to hold back when it comes to trying to influence political developments one way or the other.

That is something Australia can certainly do without.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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