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Sunday, 16 February 2020 21:53

ASPI sensitive to fact that China study paid for by US State Department Featured

ASPI sensitive to fact that China study paid for by US State Department Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think-tank that claims to be independent and non-partisan but which receives the bulk of its funds from defence firms, has accepted money from the US State Department's Global Engagement Centre to carry out a study on Australian universities that have collaborated on research with institutions in China, leading to questions about the integrity of the study.

The Global Engagement Centre, according to its own brief, was set up in 2016 to “lead, synchronise, and co-ordinate efforts of the [US] Federal Government to recognise, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests".

The ASPI appears to be somewhat sensitive to this information being made public by Labor Senator Kim Carr, who spoke about the organisation during a debate on funding for the Australian Research Council in Parliament last Tuesday. Senator Carr mentioned a donation of $448,000 as coming from the Engagement Centre, a figure the ASPI has disputed. No mention of this amount is present in its 2018-19 annual report, with the organisation saying the funds were for the 2019-20 year and would therefore figure in the report for that year – which will be quite some time from now, by which time Carr's remarks are unlikely to be remembered. The additional funds are welcome, given that the ASPI had a deficit of some $70,0000 for 2018-19.

A link to the study, the so-called China Defence Universities Tracker, has been removed from the ASPI home page — the link was there on Friday — and the acknowledgement of the study being funded by the Global Engagement Centre has disappeared from bottom of the study itself. But on the PDF version, this text remains: "ASPI is grateful to the US State Department for providing funding for this research project." The study can be found by a simple Web search, making the removal of the link just a bit amateurish.

The author of the tracker, Alex Joske, was a source for a number of stories in the Nine Entertainment papers last year and in January too, about a young Chinese man who was claimed to be an important spy. Another story in the same papers was about a Chinese man who was claimed to have been paid by a third individual to gain a Liberal seat in Parliament. But all these claims were rubbished by veteran reporter Brian Toohey a few weeks later.

After Senator Carr's utterances, the ASPI appears to have thought that it needed to have its image massaged a bit – and what better publication to do so than the Australian Financial Review which has a history of doing this for many beleaguered companies and institutions?

The AFR effort, published on 15 February, did not mention that Senator Carr had pointed to the Engagement Centre's co-ordinator, Lea Gabrielle, as being probably the only spy associated in any way with the Universities report, as the report itself had not tracked down any spooks. Gabrielle, a former US Navy intelligence officer and aviator, has also put in some time with Fox News.

Carr questioned what additional information the ASPI report could provide that the Australian Defence Department and the universities themselves could not provide.

The AFR article made no mention of the ASPI's habit of issuing reports full of errors. iTWire has reported on several mistake-ridden efforts by the ASPI, among them a bid to tar the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei and a report titled Hacking Democracies, sponsored by the Australian Computer Society, in which it claimed Russia and China were the only two countries that tried to interfere in elections in other countries.

The latter report, written by Fergus Hanson, Sarah O'Connor, Mali Walker and Luke Courtois of the organisation's International Cyber Policy Centre, failed to mention the one country that has a very long history of poking its nose into polls in foreign lands – the US of A.

To her credit, the writer of the AFR piece, Myriam Robin, named many of ASPI's supporters who provided 57% of the organisation's funds for the year 2018-19, a year when it had a total budget of about $9.3 million, with $4 million of that coming from the Federal Government. Mainstream publications generally do not go beyond characterising the ASPI as it does itself: an independent and non-partisan think-tank.

The head of ASPI, Peter Jennings, has been caught out at least once issuing incorrect statements in order to propagate his views in the media. After the hack at the Australian Parliament last year came to light, Jennings claimed that the fact users had been asked to change their passwords indicated that the breach was a serious one. In reality, changing passwords after a breach is an indication that the investigators are fairly sure that there has been no deep intrusion into the system; it is the first bit of network hygiene, as even a junior sysadmin would confirm.

Among ASPI's sponsors are shipbuilder Austal, US defence contractor Lockheed Martin, US defence supplier Northrop Grumman, Swedish defence company Saab, the Australian arm of American defence contractor Raytheon, MBDA Missile Systems, French defence giant Thales, and Jacobs, a global provider of technical, professional, and scientific services. Its cyber policy centre is backed by Microsoft, Google, au domain namespace administrator auDA, security firm Palo Alto Networks, Thales, Amazon, the Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre, the National Archives of Australia, the Federal Government, Telstra, Jacobs and encryption company Senetas. And if that is insufficient, General Atomics Aeronautical serves as a corporate supporter.

It requires a huge amount of chutzpah to take donations from all these firms and then call oneself non-partisan and independent. 

The ASPI 2018-19 report does not provide a breakdown of the donations made by each of these companies which account for a sizeable proportion of the weapons that are sold each year and used to kill people in wars around the world. An overwhelming number of the ASPI's reports are about China and to say they are hawkish in the extreme would be an understatement.

To be perfectly clear, the ASPI and its staff are entitled to issue their hawkish reports on any subject they choose. But some context would be good, so that people understand who is paying the piper and thus deciding on the tune.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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