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Will new spymaster take on the far-right?

Written by: (Contributed) on 26 December 2021


Observing the careers of senior government officials and their links with the Liberal Party is a particularly fascinating Australian pastime; it is possible to establish elite patronage systems, and how class and state actors respond to challenge and crisis, either by deliberate action or indifference. Recent media coverage of Australian defence and security provision and the role of the intelligence services, for example, has provided a fascinating insight into the upper echelons of Canberra.

Readers of the Weekend Australian for the Xmas break were able to study a massive two hundred centimetre column spread by Greg Sheridan, the newspaper's Foreign Editor about the new head of the National Intelligence Community, Andrew Shearer. (1) Written in Sheridan's usual sycophantic and obsequious journalistic style, the feature spread provided a fascinating study of the inner workings of an elite government department in Canberra.

Shearer was appointed director-general of the NIC in early December. The elite body consists of ten agencies which are part of Australia's defence and security system, which follow US Cold War directives. They include: the three main defence agencies together with the intelligence services and other government departments. Part of their stated brief has included 'co-operating on establishing a top-secret intelligence cloud that will enable the NIC to store its vast amounts of data securely and, for the agencies, accessibly'. (2)

Apparently, on 1 December, Canberra established 'a new vetting hub for the intelligence services … it sits within ASIO … and … this will make it easier for personnel to transfer between agencies … and enable … intelligence capability-sharing principles'.  (3)

Curiously, the publicity surrounding the NIC has cast serious doubts upon just how the umbrella-type body is actually supposed to be conducting its business. It was noted Shearer was already working overtime in order to 'take the inherited institutions and structures of Australian intelligence and make them more effective', presumably due to assessments about their failings. (3) Part of his workload, however, was 'combining the vast oceans of information that are out here unguarded in the public with the information Australia's intelligence agencies gather and transforming all this information into usable assessments'. (4) Have such people read newspapers, other publications and post-graduate research papers in previous times? Have they taken note of social and psychological traits in discourse?

Studies of the US intelligence services have revealed how their Crypto A.G. diplomatic equipment was used for intelligence-gathering; they spied on most countries using Operations Thesaurus and Rubicon. (5) Crypto A.G., Swiss-based business front organisation, folded in 2018 when 'the NSA's attention shifted to finding ways to exploit the global reach of Google, Microsoft, Venizon and other US technological powers'. (6) Recent studies have shown the internet is not a secure place in which to provide confidential information. Shearer, when questioned about the darker side of intelligence-gathering and the use of fake-identity and third-party actors, was both circumspect and unequivocal; stated 'it covers the whole spectrum'. (7)

John le Carre and Graham Greene both wrote extensively about such shadowy occupations and their stated terms and conditions of professional employment designed to deal with questionable matters. Le Carre, for example, wrote about philosophical considerations along the lines that 'it is bearing false witness … it's just so shitty … Lucan complained … I don't think its even ethical … is it'. (8) Moral considerations, quite clearly however, form a lower agenda consideration with such occupations inside the corridors of power.

Shearer would appear to have been chosen for the position due to his extensive experience in the corridors of power in both Canberra and Washington which have included senior government positions alongside John Howard and Tony Abbott and working with counterparts linked to the Clinton and Obama administrations. Each new appointment has taken him closer to the nerve-centres of power in his chosen profession.

One of the matters arising which Shearer and those in his employment will have to deal with is the rapid rise of the far-right in Australia and within the elite Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group. The Australian Federal Police, for example, admitted in 2019 that studies of the far-right consisted of about two per cent of their case-load; it is now about 15 per cent. (9) ASIO, likewise, have noted a dramatic increase in similar case-loads, from about ten per cent in 2019 to about fifty per cent at the present time. (10)

The far-right in recent years have taken to concentrating efforts with on-line recruitment through social media using endless conspiracy theories and other drivel-related items, including racial vilification and white supremacist political standpoints. Many of the groups remain small and appear fragmented; care, however, needs to be taken distinguishing between the leaders and the led, those in control manipulate the lowest common denominators as bully-boys and girls. The puppet-masters are the most aggressive side of the bourgeoisie and seek to weaken and divide organised labour.

The problem has also been exacerbated by government officials in Canberra and elsewhere who use their positions to shield and protect far-right personnel, either through deliberate means or by indifference. Brenton Tarrant, convicted of the terrorist outrage in New Zealand, for example, was able to move between countries using his Australian passport with impunity, socialise with like-minded counterparts and escape the scrutiny of those who were supposed to be tracking such persons of interest. The recent parliamentary inquiry into far-right political extremism, also revealed a senior Liberal government minister with two important and highly relevant and related portfolios in Home Affairs and later, Defence, openly state, 'I just don't care what their ideology is … I'm not getting into silly, stupid, petty arguments or discussions about that sort of interpretation'. (11) So much for NIC use of analytical trade-craft and data analytics.

A sensible person might also ask the question: how are you going to even identify far-right personnel and groups if you do not study the ideological nature of their publicity material, social media and email correspondence? It will be more than a little interesting to note how the NIC, with their new organisational networks, deal with such problems. Or, as is more likely, how they politically and organisationally manoeuvre around the problem, and not deal with the serious matter arising: Yes, Minister, is likely to be their chosen course.

For thousands of years epistemology, as an important philosophical tradition and theory of knowledge, has sought to distinguish between justifiable beliefs and opinion. A sensible person might hope contemporary Canberra should, likewise, form part of the same tradition and use such philosophical tools to identify the far-right and those who associate and collude with them, even if their findings prove uncomfortable and incriminating. Their failure to do so will have serious implications for Australia.  

1.     The man bringing national security out of the shadows, The Weekend Australian, 24-26 December 2021.
2.     Ibid.
3.     Ibid.
4.     Ibid.
5.     Operations: Thesaurus and Rubicon, The Washington Post, 11 February 2020; and, The intelligence coup of the century, The Washington Post, 11 February 2020.
6.     Ibid.
7.     The man…, Weekend Australian, op.cit., 24-26 December 2021.
8.     The Night Manager, John le Carre, (London, 1993), page 155.
9.     Australian far-right terrorism, SBS News, 8 October 2021.
10.   Ibid.
11.   Peter Dutton says distinctions between forms of extremism are 'silly, stupid, and petty', Today News Posts, 4 December 2020.


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