It was a treat for me to host yesterday's panel discussion on Snowden, WikiLeaks and the Future of Espionage. It was a lively panel which engaged in sometimes passionate discussion on the ethics of leaking, the practical and moral limits of intelligence-gathering, and the implications of spying (and getting caught) for Australia's relations with the world, especially Indonesia.

I was joined by former Four Corners reporter and Julian Assange biographer Andrew Fowler, former senior defence official Allan Behm (who also served as chief of staff to Labor's Minister for Defence Materiel, Greg Combet), and Indonesia specialist Greta Nabbs-Keller, who also served in the Australian defence department.

Here on The Interpreter, we're planning to continue the discussion we started yesterday, particularly on the question of oversight of the intelligence agencies. I want to pull out two quotes from Allan Behm to launch that discussion (40:40):

There is an extraordinary complacency in Australia around intelligence collection. We make all sorts of assumptions that it's all done within the boundaries of the law. I suppose it is. The problem I have is that the law is now 13 years out of date. The most recent version of the Intelligence Services Act, it simply didn't envisage what you could do with meta-data. Nobody has asked the question, to my knowledge, and certainly nobody has told the government that there is a question to be asked.

And at 49:10:

We should have a thorough-going review of the ISA. The agencies should make it clear to the parliament what they are capable of doing. They don't have to say what they've collected, but what they're able to do...that should be open to much more extensive discussion in this country.

In coming days we'll have some follow-up posts that look at questions like the following: is public oversight of the intelligence community robust enough? Has it kept up with the rise of meta-data? Should parliament be more active? Should the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security have a wider remit?

Below, some further highlights from yesterday's discussion.

  • Gretta Nabbs-Keller (7:20): Australia-Indonesia relations are in 'a cyclical downturn, but it's not a crisis in bilateral relations...I've come back from Jakarta much more upbeat about the state of bilateral relations...there are rumblings that things will mend soon and perhaps the Indonesian ambassador to Canberra may be back sooner rather than later.'
  • Allan Behm: Edward Snowden 'has got the same status as the great train robber, in my view.'
  • Andrew Fowler: 'At the back of all this discussion is the fear...of the mass surveillance state...Not because we have anything to hide, but because it is possible to concentrate the power into the hands of a very small group of people to control millions, billions of people.' (38.10)
  • Greta Nabbs-Keller (44.20): 'We don't know what other nasty revelations are ahead of us. So I would hope the (Australian) Government is looking at a risk-management strategy, particularly with a new government in Indonesia, on how to stem the damage from future leaks.'

Finally, as I mentioned above, there were several exchanges about the ethics of leaking, and I wanted to share this one between Andrew Fowler, Allan Behm and myself at 26:50. We return to the topic at 50:20 with a question from journalist Brian Toohey:

AF: (Leaking) is very rare. They only do it when it really matters. And they should do it, and I would encourage them to do it.

SR: But of course, at the point at which they...have a fundamental moral objection, the obvious answer is to resign, right?

AF: No, I don't think so. I think the obvious answer actually is to stay inside and leak to us.

AB: I was never employed as the conscience of a government...I don't know anyone employed in that kind of role.

SR: But nor did you leave your conscience at the door when you clocked in each morning.

AB: That's completely correct. So if the govt is bent upon some action that you have moral disagreement with...then it is absolutely your entitlement to resign...you don't go and stand up on a box and start telling everybody that you have got a better or a higher moral purpose than anybody else has. I think that's the route to anarchy, actually.