Date: Monday, January 08 2007
January 7, 2007
Once upon a time, it would have been a spycatcher's dream. A desperate diplomat from a ruthless communist dictatorship knocks on the Federal Government's door, pleads for political asylum and promises to tell all about his country's massive spy network in Australia.
Once upon a time, he'd have been given asylum. His expose of subversion and foreign interference would have been hailed as a counter-espionage coup. In time, some of his colleagues might have been expelled for activities incompatible with their diplomatic status. Government ministers, with the gravitas they assume when clutching a briefing paper stamped Top Secret, might have spoken gravely of a matter of national security, of a foreign power's attempts to undermine the democratic freedoms of Australian citizens and residents.
But that was once upon a time. Spy stories are more complicated these days.
When Chinese diplomat Chen Yonglin, fearing what his Government was about to do to him, went to the Sydney Immigration Department office on May 26 last year, the response was bureaucratic dithering.
Officials called the Chinese consulate to check his identity. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer ruled out asylum and even discussed the case with the Chinese ambassador. Eventually, Chen was given a protection visa, not the diplomatically challenging asylum he'd sought.
Weeks after Chen's abortive visit to the Immigration Department, the spycatchers in ASIO had a belated chat with him about his work as consul for political affairs in persecuting Falun Gong practitioners and democracy activists in the Australian-Chinese community.
Lost in the muddle was an enduring element of the Australian spy story, ignored since the end of the Cold War and obscured by the focus on counter-terrorism since September 11, 2001: foreign spies are active here, and countering them remains a key focus for our intelligence agencies.
Overshadowed by the war on terrorism, and after a decade of neglect following the end of the Cold War, business is booming for the world's second-oldest profession. In the wake of September 11, Australia's intelligence agencies are awash with taxpayers' money.
With new powers, equipment and offices, our intelligence agencies are recruiting like never before, hiring the best and the brightest. There's no end to the terrorism threat, while the threat from foreign spies seeking our secrets has never gone away. It's just become more tricky.
The budgets and staff of our intelligence agencies have doubled since 9/11, with the Federal Government dishing out more than $2 billion for intelligence-gathering.
Two things are obscured by all this money. Firstly, until recently, the focus on counter-terrorism has overshadowed what was originally ASIO's central purpose - counter-espionage, countering the efforts of foreign spies, many of them from countries that are our trading partners (such as China) or countries we sometimes declare are friends (such as Indonesia).
Secondly, the spying game remains a treacherous trade, despite the openness and accountability that our spymasters claim. It's a game still played in an ethical wasteland that former CIA counter-intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton aptly labelled a "wilderness of mirrors".