Head, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre.
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The cloak-and-dagger exploits of characters like James Bond and Jason Bourne have shaped our cultural idea of spy work. But these films, made mostly in the US and UK, have little to do with the reality of Australian intelligence.
Public perception of groups like the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), and the Australian Geo-Spatial Intelligence Organisation (AGO) is tied intimately with their overseas counterparts, and particularly their portrayals on the silver screen.
Take the Bourne movies (2002-16) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), the latter of which offers a controversially dramatised account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Both have cast intelligence in a sinister light.
The United States’ use of torture, shown in film through images of waterboarding and other forceful techniques, has sullied the image of American intelligence work, and by extension Australia’s.
Despite President Donald Trump’s call for their return, these practices remain disendorsed in the US and explicitly prohibited in Australia, but the taint lingers.
Overreach versus oversight
This bad reputation continues in Oliver Stone’s 2016 biopic Snowden, which portrays a man intent on uncovering the underhanded practices of the US National Security Agency (NSA) as it collected data on American citizens without clear legal sanction.
Edward Snowden’s revelations were widely hailed at the time as a boon for civil liberty. But anecdotal accounts indicate they have reduced trust within the “Five Eyes” network and damaged international relations – including between Australia and Indonesia.
Snowden’s actions, both in reality and as depicted on screen, have contributed to a popular idea of signals intelligence as an intrusive and malign force. Yet the Australian experience stands in contrast to that perception of American counterparts, in my opinion, thanks in part to tight legislation and oversight.
Most people don’t realise that local intelligence agencies are held accountable through several mechanisms that have emerged over recent decades, particularly in the wake of a number of royal commissions.
These include the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), and the Intelligence Services Act (ISA), which sets out the rules governing the ASIS, ASD and the AGO. But of course this doesn’t make for dramatic viewing. Laws passed in Australia to collect telecommunications metadata, although polarising, are also unlikely to make it onto the big screen.
Getting intelligence right
More recent movies like 2016’s Eye in the Sky, featuring Helen Mirren as a British colonel, are more accurate in their depiction of the current intelligence status quo.
Many of the capabilities on display in the film are real, particularly the way in which technology such as aerial sensors, signals intelligence, satellite imagery, and human agents on the ground has enabled ever more detailed, time-sensitive and actionable intelligence, and the moral questions this generates.
In Eye in the Sky, Mirren’s character and her bosses face choices about the relative value of a successfully targeted terrorist ringleader and an innocent child who inadvertently enters the missile target zone. Such fraught decisions can haunt intelligence practitioners for the rest of their lives.
To read the entire article by John Blaxland, visit ‘The Conversation’ website.