Melanie Brand

Melanie Brand [submitted as Melanie Davis] (PhD in History, 2023) ‘A Question of Trust: Secrecy and Intelligence Accountability in Cold War Australia’

Intelligence oversight and transparency have traditionally been conceptualised as a zero-sum equation in which decreases in secrecy were believed to come at the cost of intelligence agency efficacy. This thesis challenges that view. While a certain level of secrecy is protective, this thesis will demonstrate that excessive secrecy and a lack of accountability surrounding intelligence services is ultimately destructive. Using the role, functions and public perceptions of ASIO in Cold War Australia as a case study, I will establish that secrecy negatively affected intelligence efficacy in this period in Australia in multiple ways. With little to no guidance or oversight from Government, ASIO’s products became increasingly irrelevant to policymakers, and both Government and opposition members would lose sight of ASIO’s capabilities, limitations and value to Australian society.

With no external guidance and no requirement to be accountable for its actions, secrecy allowed ASIO staff to break the boundaries of their legal remit and become involved in overtly political and partisan affairs. Significantly, secrecy also contributed to reduced trust in intelligence agencies and their staff. ASIO was deeply embedded within the community it served and significantly affected by the attitudes, beliefs and actions of the broader public. When intelligence agencies such as ASIO lose the trust of those they are supposed to protect, the morale of existing staff plummets, the recruitment of quality staff is made more difficult, influence with government and opposition is weakened and government spending on intelligence is threatened. The very legitimacy of intelligence agencies as a necessary element of democratic government can – and did – come in question, and with it, the future of the organisations themselves. Secrecy did not ensure intelligence efficiency in Cold War Australia: by destroying trust in the agency and its legitimacy in the eyes of the Australian public, it eroded it.

Supervisors: Professor Sean Scalmer, Dr Julie Fedor