ASD’s decision to cancel official history contract to be probed at Senate estimates

By Shannon Jenkins

September 21, 2020

Open Research: Ground Floor, JB Chifley Library, ANU. Image: ANU

The Australian Signals Directorate will be questioned over its decision to terminate a contract with prominent academic John Blaxland, the Australian National University professor who was commissioned to write the agency’s official history last year.

Independent senator Rex Patrick plans to ask the ASD how much money has been spent on the project so far and why it has been cancelled at an upcoming Senate estimates hearing, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

He said the agency would “reasonably be met with significant concerns about bias” if it produced the two-part publication itself.

The first volume was planned to detail the agency’s history from the late 1940s to 2001, while volume two was set to be a less detailed account starting from 2002.

Blaxland has been working on the publication for more than a year, but only recently learned the contract would be terminated. A professor of international security and intelligence studies, he previously co-wrote the official history of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, as well as many other publications on the Australian intelligence community.

The ASD and the ANU have both said the decision to cancel the deal was a mutual agreement, and have been negotiating how much of the $2.2 million contract will be paid.

ASD director-general Rachel Noble reportedly made the decision to break off the contract, with the agency wanting more control over the books.

Noble recently gave a presentation on her organisation’s history at the ANU’s National Security College in a bid to promote transparency. She argued that the ASD’s role has been “laid bare on the face of legislation” for more than 20 years, stating that “transparency is not a new feature of our story”.

Read more: Top spy agency values imagination and diversity, according to Rachel Noble

The government recently proposed new national security laws which would allow agencies to “take direct action to protect a critical infrastructure entity or system in the national interest” if an immediate and serious cyber threat to Australia’s economy, security or sovereignty was detected.

While the proposal didn’t name which agencies would be covered by the laws, the government has been pushing for the ASD’s powers to be expanded for some time.

The new 2020 Cyber Security Strategy has also stated that law enforcement agencies would be given “appropriate legislative powers and technical capabilities to deter, disrupt and defeat the criminal exploitation of anonymising technology and the dark web”.

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