A modest proposal on espionage law

ASIO director general Duncan Lewis, supporting the government’s “espionage” bill, has told a parliamentary committee that journalists should not be exempted from 20-year sentences for revealing government lies that the liars have classified as “secret”.

Journalism, Lewis said, provides an “ideal cover” for foreign spies. If journalists were not jailed (along with medical personnel) for revealing that not quite everything is hunky-dory on Nauru or Manus Island, in no time at all foreign governments would be recruiting journalists to tell them that the situation on Nauru or Manus Island is not quite what the Australian government says it is.

Indeed, if I were granted a whistleblowing exemption, 15 minutes later I would be flying a spy drone over Pine Gap to photograph any hanky-panky going on at the US Boy Scout camp located there.

But Lewis’ concerns don’t go far enough. While we are all lying awake at night, worrying that journalists are being recruited to discover and publish the government’s most treasured secrets, shouldn’t we be more worried about the people with an ideal cover for possessing secrets, and who need not go digging for those secrets because they already know them?

If you were a foreign government that wanted to know what those US Boy Scouts are up to, would you be more likely to try to recruit a journalist, who could never get inside the fence at Pine Gap, or a minister who already knows all the details? Think of cost effectiveness.

More generally, those who know government secrets most intimately, and who would therefore be the chief targets of sensible foreign recruiters, are precisely the people who decide that this or that piece of information should be stamped “secret” – members of the government and their top public servants. Shouldn’t government minister be subjected to weekly (daily?) lie detector tests?

And what about the agencies whose chief preoccupation is secrets? Like ASIO, for example. Has Duncan Lewis ever been or is he now being approached by a foreign recruiter intent on stealing Australia’s secrets? If he thinks not, how can he be sure?

If you think about it, the danger posed by people who know secrets possibly spilling the beans is an almost impossible dilemma. But there is at least one solution that might work. Anyone who classifies something as secret could immediately be lobotomised or given an extreme electric shock to areas of the brain concerned with memory, so they no longer recall the secret.

Alternatively, we could tell the government to stop having secrets. What are they up to that they don’t want the rest of the world to know?