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Revealing Secrets: Sigint and Cyber

Remarks at Victorian Launch of John Blaxland & Clare Birgin, Revealing Secrets: An Unofficial History of Australian Signals Intelligence & The Advent of Cyber (UNSW Press, 2023), AIIA Victoria, 6 July 2023

John Blaxland and Clare Birgin’s important new book, Revealing Secrets: An Unofficial History of Australian Signals Intelligence & The Advent of Cyber is, as I say in my cover blurb, a meticulous compilation of the largely unsung past achievements of what I’ve always thought of as our most consistently productive intelligence source (although with ASIS and ASIO, for both of which I had ministerial responsibility during my time in government in the 1980s and ‘90s, I have to say they didn’t have, in those days at least, a lot to beat). And it’s also a thoughtful analysis of the extraordinary challenges to intelligence agencies posed by the new cyber universe.

The book makes a number of contributions both to our understanding of the past, and of a series of issues needing much more open debate than our own and allied governments have traditionally allowed or encouraged.

First, it puts on record a great many of the previously unsung achievements of a little known institution, which grew from a small back-room military office into a major Australian government agency: formally established – albeit without any official acknowledgement – as the Defence Signals Bureau in 1947, later renamed the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), and eventually, with its existence and role at last publicly acknowledged in the late 1990s, finally becoming the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), with its own statutory charter and, more recently still. a visible public face with its Australian Centre for Cyber Security (ACSC).

Even after this evolution, despite a willingness by previous Director-General Mike Burgess (not shared by his successor Rachel Noble) to reveal a great deal of the historical record – including some relatively recent offensive cyber operations, like that against Daesh in Syria – the agency has maintained a deep reluctance to spell out publicly very much at all of that record, including in the interwar and WWII years and since then in Vietnam and beyond. It’s a record which our authors have compiled in great detail – especially for the pre-1945 years when they did have access to official records – and will no doubt want to tell you a little more about.

Second, the book puts on record the achievements not just of the organizations they served but some remarkable but barely known individuals – like the gifted electrical engineer Florence Violet McKenzie who was an inspirational trainer of wartime women signallers, and the extraordinary Japanese-linguist and codebreaker Eric Nave – whose stories are here very well told.

Third, the book provides, as you would expect, a very clear account of the evolving complexity of the technological challenges that sigint has had to address, above all in the shift from analogue use of the electromagnetic spectrum to digital use, with its accompanying deluge of new data. With that shift has come a whole new focus not just on data collection but the potentially offensive capability of cyber operations and the need to develop new strategies for both attack and defence.

Fourth, the book contributes some important analysis and insights on the ethical challenges that are particularly associated with sigint intelligence, and the age-old question of how to balance the merits and virtues of actionable intelligence against the need for checks and balances on government excess. There are questions as to the extent to which, if at all, sigint interceptions should be directed not just against Australians, but in some cases foreign nationals.

This issue was thrown into sharp relief in 2013 when, as part of the massive Snowden leak of US NSA material it was revealed that Australia had been listening in to the cell-phone conversations in on the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife, and inner circle. It was a classic example (like the ASIS bugging of the East Timor Cabinet room in the Collaery case) of unintelligent intelligence – an intelligence agency mounting an operation just because it could, without sufficiently weighing potential benefit against the certainty of harm if the operation was ever revealed. I happened to be in Jakarta for a conference at the time and experienced first-hand – in conversation with my friend Marty Natelagawa, then Foreign Minister – the anger at the sense of betrayal of trust this was seen to involve.

The stupidity of that operation – for which the then Coalition government refused to in any way apologise, as a result prolonging tensions for many months (although I had identified with Marty, and communicated to Canberra, a form of words which Indonesia could accept and I thought Australia could live with) – was that this was a hugely Australia-friendly government, from whom the kind of objectively-accurate strategic-outlook information the ASD was trying to collect was essentially available from high officials for the asking.

Fifth, the book makes a useful contribution to the ongoing necessary discussion as to what is the best legislative and governance structure for ASD in particular and the intelligence community in general. Although successive high-level reviews, going back to that conducted by Justice Hope in the 1970s, have produced structures which are in many ways more transparent and accountable than those in comparable countries elsewhere, some issues and questions do persist, in particular whether – particularly since the folding of ONA into the newly created ONI – a sufficient division still exists between collection and analysis functions.

Sixth, the book cxposes very well the complexity of the issues involved in our Five Eyes relationships, with the US in particular: the pros and cons of Australia’s investment in the very substantial intelligence infrastructure we now, at least notionally, share with the US, above all at Pine Gap near Alice Springs, the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station (ADSCS) at Kojarena outside Geraldton, and the sigint facility at Shoal Bay near Darwin. While the authors remain supportive of these arrangements, and the ties that are likely to bind us even tighter if AUKUS lives up to expectations, they are not blind to the concerns felt by many, at least on my side of politics, that the national cost-benefit equation here might be getting just a little out of kilter.

Finally, John’s and Clare’s book demonstrates, by its very existence in print – after the less than subtle efforts to suppress it by the post-Burgess ASD leadership– that it is possible to stare down the more overbearing censorious instincts of the intelligence community. While there is still plenty of truth in the old adage that the authors often quote, that in the intelligence business the secret of success is keeping one’s successes secret, there is much to be said – in terms not least of the agencies’ own institutional interests – for having the community’s understanding, trust and confidence in the utility of what they are doing. And whether the ASD is comfortable acknowledging it or not, those interests are here admirably served by the two authors who will now address us.

To introduce each of them in just a few words, less than they deserve:

John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) at ANU, with a long previous military career, including as a defence attache in SEA and chief intelligence officer at Joint Operations Command Headquarters. With a PhD in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, and an MA in History from ANU, John is a distinguished historian with many published books to his credit – including two volumes of official ASIO history (which won him the badge of honour of an enraged hostile review from Gerard Henderson…) – and a prolific media commentator.

Clare Birgin is a distinguished former diplomat with a thirty-year career in DFAT, with a focus on national security and intelligence, including as Ambassador to Hungary, then Serbia and neighbouring countries, from 2004-10, and before that postings in Warsaw, Moscow (where we first met, in those heady days in 1991 when the Soviet Union was disintegrating), Geneva, and in Washington DC as ONA Liaison Officer. She did a BA and Masters in International Law at ANU and was a Visiting Fellow there before joining John’s history writing team.

Over to them both.