Saturday 16 Oct 2021 | 15:47 | SYDNEY
Saturday 16 Oct 2021 | 15:47 | SYDNEY

First ASIS speech may not be the last


Rory Medcalf


24 July 2012 09:21

There has been so much media coverage of the speech the Lowy Institute hosted last week by Australia's so-called top spy, it would be an intelligence failure of the highest order if you had somehow missed the story.

In any case, the full recording of the speech by Nick Warner, Director-General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, is now on the Lowy Institute website. For an analysis of what it all means, take a look at the interview with seasoned Canberra journalist and Lowy Institute Journalism Fellow Graeme Dobell that Sam posted yesterday, building on a blog post Graeme wrote last week.

As host of this historic lecture, I was struck by the extraordinary degree of interest in and reporting on what was essentially an uncontroversial and careful introduction to the work of Australia's foreign intelligence collection agency. Mr Warner's words did not give away anything much that could not be found through a trawl of open sources. But it was certainly welcome and useful as an explanation of how $245 million a year of Australian taxpayers' money is spent. And as Graeme Dobell says, for the first time it gave ASIS a voice in shaping its own image and narrative.

Naturally there was some cynicism in media commentary about the timing and content of Mr Warner's speech.

But I doubt it can be simplistically attributed to some bid to widen the recruitment base or safeguard funding in a tough budgetary environment. The fact is, it was high time Australia's overseas clandestine service put its case in public. The Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has been doing this sort of thing since at least 2005. The head of Britain's MI6 spoke openly a few years ago. Americans are used to the voice of the head of the CIA. I suspect the speech we heard last week has been in the works for quite a long time.

I doubt there will be enough that can safely be said in such presentations for them to become regular events. Still, if the occasional talk by the head of ASIS becomes an unexceptional part of the Canberra lecture-scape, we are likely to see the media frisson around every mere mention of that once-forbidden acronym steadily subside. And that would be a healthy thing for a more balanced public understanding about the necessary role of intelligence agencies in an uncertain world.