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‘Shrouded in secrecy’: ASD to be grilled over axed official history
‘Shrouded in secrecy’: ASD to be grilled over axed official history avatar

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Australia's cyber spy agency will be grilled at a parliamentary hearing over its shock decision to cancel a contract with the Australian National University to write its official history.

The Australian Signals Directorate is currently in talks with the ANU about how much of the $2.2 million contract it will pay out after military historian John Blaxland worked for more than a year on the project.

Professor John Blaxland was halfway through the first volume of the ASD's official history.

The ASD's decision to sever ties with Professor Blaxland, revealed by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Saturday, has embarrassed some senior members of the Morrison government who have been urging the agency to be more transparent.

The development comes at a sensitive time for the signals directorate, with the government looking to pass new laws giving the agency more powers to protect the nation's critical infrastructure from cyber attacks and help federal police go after serious criminals onshore.

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Crossbench senator Rex Patrick said the cancelling of the contract without public explanation raised significant concerns including a lack of transparency and a waste of taxpayers' money.

Senator Patrick said the ASD "can expect to be grilled" by him at a Senate estimates hearing next month.

"How much public money has been spent under the contract since the work commenced? For what reason did ASD terminate the contract? What are the plans moving forward? These are just some of the questions that must be answered by ASD," Senator Patrick said.

"It is an organisation shrouded in secrecy, but this cannot apply in relation to public expenditure on and plans related to the writing of its history."

The decision has shocked colleagues of Professor Blaxland, a former intelligence officer with the Australian Defence Force who co-authored The Official History of ASIO.

In a press release in July last year, the ASD said the selection of Professor Blaxland came "after a rigorous tender process" and praised him as "one of Australia’s most experienced and respected military historians".

ASD director-general Rachel Noble, who took over in February this year, made the decision to cancel the contract, sources familiar with the decision confirmed.

Senior security sources said the ASD will still ago ahead with an official history, but it now wanted to have more control over the project. The ASD said the replacement process would take in the work already completed by Professor Balxland and his team.

Senator Patrick said the project would lack credibility if it was produced from within the organisation.

"An attempt to write a history from within will reasonably be met with significant concerns about bias and incompleteness. The words 'secret agency' and 'autobiography' should never be used in the same sentence, ever."

Under the contract, Professor Blaxland and emeritus professor David Horner were to write an exhaustive two-volume history of the agency from its establishment in the late 1940s, but it would not chronicle the last 20 years.

Professor Blaxland, who stepped down as the head of the ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre to undertake the project, was about halfway through the first volume when he was told by the ASD in recent weeks the contract would be cancelled.

A spokesman for the ASD said it remained committed to delivering an account of its history in time for its 75th anniversary in 2022.

“ASD has commenced a replacement process, consistent with Commonwealth procurement guidelines. This process will leverage the existing work compiled under the ANU contract," the ASD spokesman said.

“As the contract was terminated early by mutual agreement, full payment was not made.

“It would not be appropriate to discuss final payments as these are subject to commercial settlement.”

An ANU spokesman said the university "enjoys a productive and strong relationship with ASD and looks forward to continuing to work with the agency on this matter".

"Details of contracts are commercial in confidence and as such are not discussed publicly," the ANU spokesman said.

Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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