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Tightening of security vetting a threat to rights

Written by: (Contributed) on 24 September 2021


Shortly before the recent announcement about Australia joining the US and UK to build a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines another related announcement was given the barest minimum of coverage. It is not difficult to establish the reason for limited publicity.

It included information about a recent report from the Auditor-General on security vetting. (1) The controversy has far deeper considerations in Canberra than many suspect. It also has far-reaching implications for the trade-union movement in the defence and contracting industries.

It arose following right-wing Defence Minister Peter Dutton lobbying his US counterparts for Australia to have greater involvement in US-led defence manufacturing. There is, however, a great deal more than meets the eye with the stated position of the Department of Defence and their leader.

At stake is greater involvement of the US intelligence services in Australian affairs of state and sovereignty, thereby strengthening the 'alliance' in favour of Washington and the Pentagon; a classic right-wing position in the present US-led Cold War.

In mid-September, shortly before the announcements about the new defence and security alliance between Australia and the US and UK, the Australian Auditor-General Grant Hehir’s report about security vetting highlighted problems arising from another inquiry which had concluded the Defence Department had repeatedly allowed contractors access to highly classified information without the necessary vetting procedures.

Many of those are “defence” industries housed in facilities within the South Australian manufacturing sectors and eager to capitalise on increased defence spending, particularly with the probability of US-led military designed equipment being made in Australia.

Security vetting is a grey area of domestic intelligence and used to assesses a worker's suitability for specific and sensitive employment positions. While it basically concentrates upon character traits which include: honesty, trustworthiness, maturity, tolerance, resilience and loyalty, it can also include the individual worker's family and close associates also being subject to the same intelligence procedures. (2)

It can be used to exclude those regarded as undesirable from suitable employment and career opportunities, a matter with significant political implications.

Research conducted decades ago in the UK found vetting procedures highly controversial. As Australia has, historically, been so close to the UK through Commonwealth and Five Eyes connections there is every reason to assume the research findings also apply to the Australian workforce.

The UK research findings established, for example, that those applying for clearances in sensitive industries were grouped together with family and 'known associates' and the 'intimate knowledge of a prospective employee and her or his acquaintances'. (3) Such procedures invariably include scrutiny of a worker's sexual preferences, life-style, financial spending patterns, and general attitudes to a variety of criteria regarded as important.

The biggest problem which was established, however, was in relation to definitions of terrorism. All those placed under surveillance by the Police and Security services were invariably considered to be potential terrorists. (4) The definition of terrorism was, nevertheless, problematic and was eventually resolved with reference to the term 'subversion', which is not a legally defined crime.

Using a quotation from a State Minister for the Home Office in Whitehall, Lord Harris, it was resolved the term terrorist/subversive was defined as 'as activities threatening the safety or well-being of the State'. (5) No reference, however, was made to traditional notions of class and state power. It is quite clear, nevertheless, how those residing in the comfort of the corridors of power in Whitehall or Canberra regard many quite legitimate industrial relations procedures. While being quite legal, some procedures have bearing upon their traditional benefits with class and state powers and are, therefore, regarded as unacceptable and 'subversive' as a means of dealing with opposition.

The matters arising have been muddied still further with declassification of US intelligence material which concluded co-ordinated counter-intelligence procedures have been conducted world-wide against all those 'who oppose the US Defence Department during peacetime and all levels of conflict'. (6) Merely attending a peace or Greenpeace rally or having a family member or close associate involved in such organisations would be sufficient to have files opened on a worker. Once opened, security files remain so until death, thereby potentially providing the State with opportunity to restrict access to what they regard as sensitive material.

The Australian vetting procedures appear quite haphazard, providing those in control with random means to either allow or restrict security clearances without too much scrutiny or questioning. Once established, however, a worker has very limited or little right of appeal or of even checking the reliability of incriminating information used against them on the grounds of 'security'.

It is also doubtful whether research has been conducted on the allocation of defence contracts to those companies providing financial support for the Liberal Party and its coalition partners, although would appear quite likely. The present Morrison coalition government in Canberra, furthermore, had been responsible for 16,503 active defence contracts estimated to total more than $200 billion, although was 'unsure which … required security clearances'. (7) As they are well known, elsewhere, for rewarding their associates with honours, other benefits and patronage, one can but question the whole matter.

The Auditor-General report, for example, established the government had been found to have awarded thirteen companies with 'secret or above security classifications' without valid clearances even being given. (8) It also found one of Australia's biggest defence contractors, Austal Ships Pty., Ltd., was among companies being awarded work without the necessary clearances. One can, perhaps, forgive a small, inconspicuous workshop employing a handful of people to have been overlooked; a big, corporate business is too big to escape the notice of even the most short-sighted and inept intelligence officer.

The timing of the release of the report from the Auditor-General came just ahead of a major push by Defence Minister Peter Dutton to gain greater access to US missile technology at high-level talks in Washington the following week. It is also useful to note those associated with the present Morrison coalition government stated immediately on publication 'the report had exposed a major national security risk'. (9)

Such developments carry the hallmarks of 'Yes, Minister' political chicanery, designed specifically to allow the US intelligence services greater access into the corridors of power in Canberra and State capitals with specific reference to Adelaide which is in the Defence State. Under the present circumstances, marked by the present Cold War, the shadowy, faceless wonders of the CIA's corridors of power in Langley must be rubbing their greasy little mits with glee as they plan operating with impunity inside the Australian system.

On 23 May 2017 the Trump administration introduced new US visa security vetting procedures which included all applicants having to submit social media handles for the previous five years together with biographical information for the past fifteen years which included email addresses and telephone numbers together with all employment and travel details. (10) It is not particularly difficult to see problems arising with chance association and personal contact, including previous partners and their past and later contacts and on-line spamming from anonymous websites controlled by those of dubious character.  

US Cold War sights are now focused on Australian workers, their families and friends. They seek to make Australians prisoners of their intelligence-collection and data-mining procedures.

The developments carry all the hallmarks of the main theme of novels by Franz Kafka (1883-1924) where alienated individuals are isolated and excluded and their fate forever lies in the hands of faceless bureaucrats, officialdom and their general lack of sensible accountability.

                                         We need an independent foreign policy!

1.     Defence in dark on contractor security, Australian, 14 September 2021.
2.     See: Australian Government, Active Security Clearances, March 2015; and,         Australian Government Security Vetting Agency, Department of Defence, Character Traits, September 2021.
3.     State Research, Bulletin No. 5, (London, April-May 1978), Vetting and Surveillance, pp. 77-78.
4.     Ibid.
5.     Ibid.
6.     Army Foreign Intelligence Assistance Program, AR 381-20, Section 1.5, Mission and Policy, page 1.
7.     Australian, op.cit., 14 September 2021.
8.     Ibid.
9.     Ibid.
10.   Trump administration approves, Reuters, 1 June 2017.



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