Saturday 26th of September 2020

‘blatant irrational behaviour’: beijing accuses australia of ‘harassing’ chinese journalists...

Australia’s Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, warned foreign journalists that they may be investigated if they give a “slanted view” of the country. Meanwhile, cops in Victoria have crushed lockdown protests with an iron fist.

Dutton’s comments came several days after the arrest of Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist with China’s CGTN broadcaster, and after the evacuation of two Australian journalists from China last week.

“If people are here as journalists and they’re reporting fairly on the news, then that’s fine,” Dutton told ABC TV on Sunday, adding that these journalists shouldn’t give “a slanted view to a particular community.” Dutton added that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation – comparable to the British MI5 or American FBI – questioned some journalists this summer, but would not confirm if they were Chinese nationals, as had been reported.

Dutton’s comments came amid a diplomatic spat with China over the evacuation of the Australian journalists. Beijing has accused the Australian government of “interference in a Chinese legal case” by pulling them out of China. The minister didn’t directly address Chinese journalists in Australia, but indirectly cautioned any foreign reporters who may be “interfering or conducting espionage-type activities.”

However, they also come amid growing government authoritarianism in Australia. The state of Victoria has imposed one of the harshest lockdowns anywhere in the world, with citizens of Melbourne under an 8pm curfew (extended to 9pm from Monday) and forbidden from leaving home without a work permit. Police are permitted to enter property without warrants, and military troops and drones have been brought in to ensure compliance.


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a few rolex watches...

Here’s a strange thing about the attack by the political/media/security/defence/spook industries on our most important economic relationship: It displays such little faith in Australia.

China conducts espionage! D’uh – so do we, so does everyone.

China tries to influence people and governments for its benefit! D’uh again, for the same reason.

In the Australian context, China just isn’t very good at it compared with, say, the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. And it’s getting worse, but so are we.

What is odd about the prominent Sinophobes is that they seem to believe Australians can be so easily seduced by an authoritarian dictatorship.

A few Rolex watches here, an Opposition pollie’s legal bill there, some fat donations to both sides of politics and we’re all off on the Long March with Chairman Xi.


Yes, Bob Menzies thought Hitler was doing some positive things in 1938, the Soviet Union had some local fans and the Vietnam War was popular for a while, but most of us really aren’t that stupid most of the time.

Healthy Australian scepticism is not dead, the scepticism that saw Menzies’ referendum to ban the Communist Party defeated in 1951 even while we were fighting the Korean War and the newspapers and churches were shouting “yes”.

ASIO has had plenty of political form over its three score years and 11, starting when the Soviets were the communists of interest but rapidly expanding to just about anyone they might consider subversive, including Aboriginal rights activists, anti-apartheid groups and, heaven save us, feminists.

Our spooks kept files on perhaps half a million Australians, people as varied as Phillip Adams, High Court judge Michael Kirby, journalist Anne Summers and MP Meredith Burgmann.

Our sceptical nature inclines us to treat such surveillance as a bit of a joke, but it has had and still does have ramifications.


Our sceptical nature inclines us to treat such surveillance as a bit of a joke, but it has had and still does have ramifications.

At the launch of Ms Burgmann’s book Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files,Aboriginal activist Gary Foley told of discovering the so-called “Black Power death list”, invented by authorities and leaked to the media but with no basis in fact.

Like all bureaucracies, ASIO is self-aggrandising.

Like the War on Drugs, the War on Foreign Influence most benefits those prosecuting it – that’s how empires are built, budgets expanded, promotions gained.

The second Hope Royal Commission following the 1983 Coombe-Ivanov affair resulted in improved oversight of our spook industry, but it seems it is off and running hard again.

That’s hardly surprising when the parliamentary committee with oversight of ASIO is chaired by the hard Right’s Andrew Hastie.

ASIO’s selective parading and briefing smacks of an organisation that knows on which side its bread is buttered.

Sam Dastyari’s self-destruction and the raid on NSW state Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane were promoted like a Michaelia Cash attack on a union office. The paths of CCP-linked donations to the Liberal Party, not.

In any event, are we in the Chinese Communist Party’s thrall? No. We have the sense to not trust Mr Xi or Mr Trump.

So it sounds more than a little hysterical when backbenchers like Mr Hastie claim Beijing is threatening our freedom – he’d have us believe we have intellectually failed, no doubt a problem that could be cured by several years’ unquestioning military service – and George Christensen labels China a new Nazi Germany.

(On second thoughts, there might be something in the national intellectual failure allegation – our federal Parliament has the China baiting, climate change denying, blame-arson-for-bushfires George Christensen as its chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth.)

You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of the CCP, or at least have an ASIO file, to wonder if the security lobby’s anti-China campaign is doing more harm than good. Or any good at all.

Whatever ASIO was doing with mainland Chinese journalists here and the disheartening expulsion of the ABC and AFR correspondents from China keep the game ticking along, each step taking the relationship down further without any gain.

In the face of a wall of anti-Beijing media, our most experienced spook-watching journalist, Brian Toohey, has written of the damage being done to Australian research by the Morrison government’s anti-Chinese legislation.

“China is now the biggest source of refereed scientific journal articles in the world. As a result, Australia has a lot to gain from research partnerships with Chinese universities. They welcome Australian collaboration in research. But there are constant allegations that China wants to steal the intellectual property generated by this research – something that is hard to do when it is destined for publication in the public domain.”

On the sheer weight of China’s massive R&D budget compared with our small effort, odds are Australian researchers can gain more from research partnerships with Chinese universities than vice versa.

In the present climate, it was not strange to see a headline on the front page of Murdoch’s Weekend Australian proclaiming Chinese bullying ‘won’t be tolerated’.


“The country’s top diplomat has warned that Australia must stand up firmly to bullying from China, or any other country, or else risk ‘a very slippery slope’ for our democracy,” reported the paper.

“In a powerful critique of the growing diplomatic rift with Beijing, Frances Adamson, the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, challenged China’s aggressive ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomacy and vowed the government would never tolerate Beijing’s interference in Australia’s internal affairs.”

It was strange though to think the DFAT boss would be so undiplomatic, especially one with the “China hand” credentials of Ms Adamson.

The interview the front-page story linked to further back in the newspaper didn’t read as belligerently and the actual quotes attributed to Ms Adamson were more nuanced than the journalist’s blunt interpretation.

I have no knowledge of the front-page story’s geneses, but it wouldn’t be the first time a report in a Murdoch paper had been beaten up by the odd editor to fit the party line.

Judging Ms Adamson by what she is quoted as saying, as opposed to what The Australian asserts – and we can’t know what she said that has been omitted – it looks like the DFAT chief was trying to play her department back into a game that has been dominated by defence and security and their rich and powerful backers.

Taken at the face value of The Australian report though, would any reasonable person think our democracy is being threatened by China?

When Australia had its own busy communist parties, even back when Queensland elected a Communist Party representative, Fred Paterson, to state parliament and re-elected him, we’ve tended to not take foreign interference too seriously outside ASIO.

Quite simply, our system is too obviously superior to think we’re turning CCP.

We should have a little more faith in Australia, in that we’re more likely to subvert than be subverted by miserable authoritarian agents.


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you have been catalogued and asioed...

’Twas pure coincidence that as I was writing Monday’s story on the local spook/defence/media industries having little faith in Australia but lots of self-interest in promoting Sinophobia, journalists at the ABC and Australian Financial Review were belting their keyboards over another alleged Chinese spying outrage.

“China’s ‘hybrid war’: Beijing’s mass surveillance of Australia and the world for secrets and scandal” headlined the ABC.

The AFR went at it every which way, from “China’s social media warfare database lists key Australians” to providing a sample 120 names listed under the tease headline “Are you in China’s social warfare database?” – a sort of random not-particularly-Rich-List, complete with a photograph of someone from the AFR’s Young Rich List.

The irony of this in a publication big on compiling databases of people seems to have been lost.

The story boils down to a Chinese company, Zhenhua Data, combing the internet to build a database of 2.4 million people’s personal information, including some 35,000 Australians – which means it is a wee fraction of the width and depth of the Google and Facebook databases, never mind what the US National Security Agency holds.

Heavens, even the old ASIO is alleged to have opened files on more than half a million Australians.

Bernard Keane, someone known to not take the local security establishment at face value, ran a story in Crikey on the double standards on display and nailed this tweet:

The Zhenhua Data story is so fascinating -- not for the story itself, rather how pretty much every mainstream journalist who has covered it has failed to apply the simplest scepticism and context to it, preferring instead OMG WHAT ARE THE INSCRUTABLE CHINESE UP TO NOW?!



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aussie intelligence agencies play politics...

Secrecy covers up abuse of power and poor performance by security services

By JACK WATERFORD | On 15 September 2020

One would have to go back to the 1970s to find the nation so ill-served. All the more so as politicians have politicised national security, and reverted to 1960s games of gathering and using secret information for political purposes. It would not be strictly correct to describe the agencies themselves, or their leaders, as politically compromised  — at least in a party-partisan way — but each now operates in a far from detached environment.


The ASIO of today is a fundamentally different organisation from that of 1949, 1954 (the Petrov defection) or for that matter 1983. The Cold War ended 31 years ago, before most ASIO employees were born, and the mindset of a much more technocratic organisation is not much shaped by Cold War experience or prejudices. After the fall of the Soviet Union, indeed, it had to invent some new functions to remain in business at all, and had settled mainly on politically motivated violence — aka terrorism — even before the events of September 11, 2001, which gave it new impetus, allowed it to more than double in size, and to warrant the Lubyanka- by-the-Lake in which it is presently headquartered. Modern ASIO heads speak at the National Press Club, and the organisation has a Twitter presence.

The War Against Terror saw conservative governments change the ASIO legislative charter to give it  executive powers. This was a big mistake. Previously it could only advise government. It now has powers of arrest, of detention of suspects for questioning, increased powers of surveillance, capacity to bug, tap and monitor computer traffic, and even to make major computer companies provide  codes so that encrypted messages could be read. Most new resources, and some old ones, went to new functions. Many overlapped with the AFP, which itself built an empire on the war against terrorism. The AFP also, by sleight of hand, began to use the new technology and toys being used in the intelligence community in ordinary criminal investigation, if without conspicuous success.

Modern intelligence and security chiefs have higher profiles, when they want it.  But, if any question is inconvenient, they can claim secrecy. They can harass, arrest and charge any critic betraying evidence of inside knowledge, and sometimes, with an amazingly pliant judiciary, put them in jail for a secret trial. The organisations openly lobby for new powers, in the process often dismissing reasoned criticisms and making grand but contentious pronouncements about Australia’s position in the world. These are usually more opinions than the result of formal analysis, and are often beyond the brief of the agencies they represent. Like the AFP, some agencies cultivate selected journalists who are fed inside tips on raids, arrests or major announcements, and reciprocate with largely uncritical commentary. Likewise, most of the politicians on the parliamentary committee to which they are notionally accountable are entirely uncritical, sometimes for fear of being called “weak”.

Every university, it now seems, has courses on intelligence analysis, international relations and “national security studies”. A good many graduates hope to get jobs inside the system. Professors and lecturers drift in and out of the system. They are mostly unmoved about the ever increasing size of the intelligence industry, the resources it commands and the gravy train it provides for nearly everyone concerned.

Hostile leaking is deplored. Self-serving leaking is common, and if there has to be a leak inquiry, the AFP, when it can be bothered at all, takes great pains not to implicate the main leakers — ministers and their staff. Stories in The Australian — that the other side of politics (usually Labor) is weak, hopeless and irresolute on national security, and similar matters, such as defence, and the refugee invasion — show signs of hand-feeding.

It’s been going on for years.  Nearly 20 years ago, for example, Josh Frydenberg, working in Alexander Downer’s office, called his minister’s department for a  copy of a Top Secret analysis from Andrew Wilkie. Wilkie was then an analyst in the Office of National Assessments critical of the politicisation of reports on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That night, someone in the minister’s office leaked a copy of that Top Secret document to Andrew Bolt, the columnist, so as to discredit Wilkie. A lengthy and well-resourced investigation was unable to solve the crime. What a surprise.

That leak was at least as serious as, say, self-serving correspondence between the secretaries of Home Affairs and Defence about a Mike Pezzullo proposal to expand  the power of the Australian Signals Directorate to spy on Australians, as well as foreigners. But Mike Pezzullo has the right to ask that the leaking of anything he writes, and writes Top Secret on, be an offence, even when it is not (at the time) government policy. Much genuine AFP zeal — down to checking underwear drawers, went to trying, unavailingly, to solve the leak before the High Court stepped in.

A fairly recent re-organisation of agencies saw former ASIS Chief, Nick Warner, made Top Spook and head of the Office of National Intelligence. More money and staff were allocated. It has largely gone to extra layers of bureaucracy “liaising” between agencies. It does not appear to have actually increased the quality of intelligence reaching end-users, nor the speed of its arrival.

When material shows criminality, intelligence overreach or failure, or cover-up, or even empire building, leakers, if they can be found, are charged. The gulf — and hypocrisy — of those using secrecy to conceal abuse is the chief reason — though not the only one — why most claims of secrecy and national security overriding any other consideration, including the public interest, should be taken with a grain of salt. Never once has the system — political or bureaucratic — shown any anxiety to curb abuse or call it to account. And the existing accountability mechanisms are not adequate to the task.

Over recent years, most agencies seem to be seeking to expand their roles, and concentrate less on their original functions. ASD, for example, exists primarily to suck up the electronic communications of other countries. But it keeps wanting to expand its role into cyber-attack, cyber-defence, the monitoring of Australians by people the Home Affairs minister does not like, and finding paedophiles and other ordinary criminals. The expertise for these latter functions may be similar to the core task, but the mind-set and calibre of person required is different. This corrupts and compromises both functions.

 Likewise ASIO bosses lost their focus on counter-espionage and security intelligence in their keenness to fight terrorism and play with guns. They seem to think security intelligence has given the organisation expertise in analysis and the discernment of enemy intentions. Home Affairs used the pretext of wanting to set up warning systems about refugee and drug importations, to seek to become not only an intelligence “collector”, like ASIO, ASIS or ASD, but also an intelligence analyst, and big player when the big boys gather to decide what all of the confusing noise means, if anything.

One would have to go back to the 1970s to find the nation so ill-served. All the more so as politicians have politicised national security, and reverted to 1960s games of gathering and using secret information for political purposes. It would not be strictly correct to describe the agencies themselves, or their leaders, as politically compromised — at least in a party-partisan way — but each now operates in a far from detached environment.


John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.


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