It's been all over the news this morning that during Tony Abbott's photo op/briefing at ASIO's new headquarters ('Lubjanka by the Lake', as Canberrans call it), the cameras picked up details of documents they should not have seen.
ASIO (which is a corporate member of the Lowy Institute) has quickly denied there was any security breach, and terrorism expert Andrew Zammit has pointed out on Twitter that the information revealed in the glimpsed documents — which show the Melbourne and Sydney suburbs from where most Australian fighters in Iraq and Syria had emanated from — has been publicly reported anyway.
But even if this was a minor breach, can we agree that playing Gotcha! in such situations serves no one's longer-term interests and in fact impoverishes the national debate on terrorism and security?
Yes, such incidents provide a nice sugar hit for the opposition and the media, but in fact they ought to be the ones encouraging greater scrutiny and transparency when it comes to national security, even when it happens by accident. When you jump all over trivial incidents like this, you just encourage the extreme risk aversion that causes our bureaucracy to adopt a defensive crouch any time it needs to deal with the public and media.
It would also serve the Government's interest to be more open with the activities of its security agencies. In 2013 and 2014, Edward Snowden leaked some of those agencies' biggest secrets. And the result? Lowy polling in 2014 found that 70% of Australians considered it 'acceptable' that its government spies on countries with which Australia does not have good relations. The figure is 50% even when it concerns a government with which Canberra does have good relations.
So Australians support our spy agencies, even after they learn more about the activities of those agencies than they strictly ought to. That support is a source of democratic legitimacy which should be nurtured by governments, and they can do that in part by letting in a bit more sunlight. As I've argued before, a certain level of secrecy is essential for maintaining security and conducting Australia's international affairs. But we shouldn't just assume we have the balance between secrecy and transparency right. It's something that needs constant adjustment, and when governments fail to take the lead on that process of adjustment by improving transparency in a responsible way where they can, they increase the risk that such transparency will happen irresponsibly by the likes of Edward Snowden.