Abbott’s Dark State: War powers, invigilation and trust

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The Attorney-General George Brandis says the Australian people can’t be told why a lawyer's documents and equipment were seized by ASIO on Tuesday. Distinguished former diplomat Dr Alison Broinowski says the secretive ‘Dark State’ of the intelligence services needs to be exposed to the light.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL GEORGE BRANDIS, and now the Prime Minister, say the Australian people can’t be told why documents and equipment were seized by ASIO from a lawyer's office on Tuesday, nor why a former ASIS operative was interrogated in Canberra. Senator Brandis’ reason is one of the oldest in the book — national security. Alexander Downer, who was Foreign Minister when Australia allegedly bugged East Timor’s cabinet room during oil and gas negotiations in 2004, won’t comment for the same reason: security

Many in Australia might not be much concerned about it, but there is a global struggle under way. It is about nothing less than the future of the world.

On one side of the divide are people who want no change in the way we use the earth’s resources, dispose of waste and reduce global warming, while on the other are people who are so concerned that they believe it’s already too late and we are doomed as a species, within this century.

On one side of the global divide are those who want economic growth and personal wealth at any price, while on the other are people who believe the capitalist system can be changed by nothing less than a revolution.

On one side are those who use their power to repress criticism and dissent, control information and deceive their fellow-citizens, while on the other are people who seek to increase transparency, freedom of expression and trust between and within nations.

On one side are people who support their leaders invading and occupying other countries, killing civilians ‒ including with drone strikes and chemical weapons ‒ and defying conventions on human rights, nuclear weapons, refugees and corruption, while on the other side are those who uphold international laws and principles.

On one side are people who approve the use of terrorist strategies and terrorist behaviour by their own governments against ‘terrorists’, while on the other side are people who see ‘terrorism’ as only the latest of a series of bogeys designed to keep them afraid and compliant.

On one side are people who advocate free expression and democracy, while on the other are people who are hunted and threatened for exposing governments which invigilate their own citizens and foreigners alike.

The only thing they have in common is they all use the internet.

This two-sided struggle has been around for a long time.

However, in the last five years or so, it has changed, with huge leaks of official secrets enabled by internet-empowered whistleblowers. The struggle has recently become more complex and vehement, with social media enabling the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, and setting off replica movements in other countries.

People, anywhere, who are paying attention now know that the familiar traditional state, operating more or less openly, conceals a ‘Deep State’ behind it. Resembling the Central Committees of totalitarian governments, the Deep State has developed since 2001, particularly in the United States, as

‘… a parallel top secret government whose parts [have] mushroomed in less than a decade into a gigantic, sprawling universe of its own, visible to only a vetted cadre.’

~ Dana Priest and William Arkin, Top Secret America: The Rise Of The New American Security State, New York: Little Brown, 2011: 52

Many of these cadre people operate in a vast data centre in Utah, run by the National Security Agency (NSA), with enough storage capacity for everything that’s ever been written and will be emailed or telephoned in the coming century.

A secret court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) routinely approves invigilation of private telecommunications and internet in the United States. But it imposes no such restraints on data collected by Americans on foreigners.

Thanks to Edward Snowden and other ex-NSA people, we have learnt a lot this year about PRISM, a program for US spying, warrantless wiretapping, and monitoring of fibre-optic cables, which invigilates people’s private data with the compliance of Internet servers and telecos. PRISM is only one of dozens of NSA’s surveillance programs with weird titles, including the appropriately named PANOPTICON.

The American Deep State has widened its surveillance beyond Islamic terrorism to include, according to Peter Dale Scott:

‘… any incipient protest movement that might challenge the policies of the American war machine.’

Scott quotes an FBI circular about ‘potential indicators’ of terrorist activities, which said anyone with doubts about 9/11 should be considered suspicious — that’s about half of the U.S. population. Scott argues that allied wars against ‘terror’ have actually increased the danger of terrorism and have pursued the wrong people while allowing many of the real terrorists to escape. The real intention of the wars against terror, he says, is to establish a permanent U.S. military presence in Central Asian countries, rich in oil and gas, while containing domestic opposition to American militarism.

Of course, the Deep State extends to Australia too, where the same scare tactics are used.

Edward Snowden’s revelations came out just before the election in September, together with a report by Philip Dorling in the Sydney Morning Herald about Australia’s participation in intercepting undersea cable messages between East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, but neither of our major parties made any comment. Of course they would not, for Australia has been complicit ever since 1947 in the ‘five eyes’ intelligence sharing agreement between the Anglophone allies that has gone on expanding. [Desmond Ball, A Suitable Piece of Real Estate, Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1980] Australia is building a facility to match NSA’s in Utah at HMAS Harman near Canberra, to suck in data from both friends and enemies. But the convention has always been neither to confirm nor deny that this invigilation takes place, let alone that it has grown exponentially.

The allies pass information between themselves not only about alleged terrorists, but about citizens accused of no crime, like Julian Assange. Intelligence people tend to regard themselves as a ‘community’, more loyal to each other than to governments, which come and go. Their field is limitless and no amount of data is ever enough.

New prime ministers are told how important the Deep State is and how national security would be imperilled if they divulge it. But if Tony Abbott had followed the U.S. example in this as he does in many other things, he would have done as President Obama did with the German Chancellor — realised that the costs of interception can outweigh its benefits and immediately apologised to President Yudhoyono for the interception of his phone messages and those of his wife and senior ministers in 2009. But he probably knows it has continued since then and that there is more to come from Snowden soon.

Espionage will not disappear, but its uses are shrinking as leaking increases. Secrecy still has its purposes in diplomatic negotiations, as espionage does in security. The national security industry will fight to keep government support, in spite of its many shortcomings — for example, failing to predict 9/11, the Bali bombing, the London underground bombing, or the Boston marathon bombing.

Arguments about the need for preserving secrecy (e.g. nuclear weapons in Israel, Japan) have to be weighed against the benefits of disclosure (such as détente in Iran, North Korea). Trust cannot be built in a climate of suspicion and trust is essential for disarmament, non-proliferation, legal and trade agreements, let alone for avoiding future wars. [Global Asia, The Politics of Trust, vol 8, no 3, Fall 2013] The more the US capacity to enforce its will declines, the less it can be trusted to defend Australia. Hence Australia must develop trust with our neighbours as a matter of national priority, just as the Asian Century White Paper recommended.

So, how well are we doing?

Not well. We are secretly negotiating to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, under which Australia will be forced to police internet users, censor Internet content and oblige service providers to police their users and hand over information on them. We are publicly siding with the US and Japan against our major trading partner, China, which is seeking the same security zone around its coast that the US, Japan and other countries have. We have seriously offended Indonesia, our most important neighbour, in deference to our membership of the Anglo-allied espionage community. We have failed to get either a Labor government or the Coalition to set up an inquiry into the Iraq war, as others have done, to ensure that the mistakes we made in 2003 are not repeated. We have attracted no political interest in a review of the war powers that enable an Australian prime minister to send us to war without a debate or a vote in Parliament, and it could happen again. We have not, in short, behaved as an independent country with a coherent foreign and defence policy.

We can blame the obstinacy of governments in blocking moves for change, their persecution of those who propose them and the compliant media whose values they share. But they haven’t yet shut down the Internet, they can’t contain public pressure, and they may actually be more afraid of us than we are of them. Why otherwise would they be so secretive, and so embarrassed when their operations are revealed? As we in WikiLeaks say, courage is contagious. We have never so needed to display it. One of the most courageous, Glenn Greenwald, was on the BBC this week refusing to be cowed by Hard Talk.

 In February 2013, I heard an American who had worked for NSA jokingly tell an audience in Washington that national security is an industry that thrives on fear — making the public afraid so they will go on paying for the NSA [Michael Green, conference of American Association of Australia New Zealand Studies 2013]. National security officials, Glenn Greenwald told the BBC, “routinely lie”. Their lies are about protecting themselves and their product from exposure, and ramping up fear among the public that pays them.  But the oil and gas negotiations in East Timor had nothing to do with Australia’s security from threat, and if Brandis and Downer are suggesting they did, that is deceitful. The reason the Prime Minister could not quickly assure President Yudhoyono what happened in 2009 was all a mistake, before his own time, and would not happen again, is that he would have known it had been happening both before and since 2009.

A review of Australian intelligence that weighs what we get out of it against the damage it causes is overdue. While we wait for one, more courageous whistleblowers will continue to embarrass the government.

The originals of all John Graham's art published on IA are available at very reasonable prices. All enquiries to editor@independentaustralia.net.

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