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The boss of Australia's cyber spy agency has conceded it cancelled a contract with the Australian National University to write its official history after it sought to gain editorial control over the project beyond secrecy provisions.
The Australian Signals Directorate’s shock decision in September to sever ties with Professor John Blaxland, revealed by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, has embarrassed some senior members of the Morrison government who have been urging the agency to be more transparent.
Australian Signals Directorate chief Rachel Noble has defended the decision to cancel the contract.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Appearing before Senate estimates on Tuesday night, ASD director-general Rachel Noble confirmed her agency and the ANU had reached an "amicable agreement" to hand the university and Professor Blaxland about 65,000 of the 75,000 words he produced to use for their own purposes.
She said ASD was searching for a different author to produce its official history after cancelling the $2.2 million contract with ANU and Professor Baxland, who had worked on the project for more than a year.
The ASD had already paid ANU more than $500,000 and is still in negotiations about paying it more money for its expenses. “It was a matter of a difference of views," she said.
“The contract was to cover two volumes – the first volume from the start of ASD – just … after the Second World War – up until the mid-1970s and it was to cover 100,000 to 150,0000 words.
“We reached a point with ANU where about 65,000 of the 75,000 words that were produced – which I mentioned we’ve now assigned over to ANU for their use and publication as they see fit – was focused on the antecedents of cryptology and signals intelligence in the world, including Greek and Roman times.
“And we had a difference of opinion with ANU about whether that would be the best balance of content, and we really preferred that the content focused on the history of ASD itself.
“We thoroughly respected ANU’s view that to amend the content they felt might be an infraction of their academic freedoms."
Ms Noble said ASD was in the process of putting out a new tender.
In the original contract signed in June 2019, it was guaranteed ASD would only review the manuscript for security and privacy reasons, and said it was "not intended as an infringement of the artistic or academic integrity of the contractor's work.”
Professor John Blaxland was halfway through the first volume of the ASD’s official history.
The ASD this year requested Professor Blaxland and the ANU to alter the content beyond security or privacy provisions.
Professor Blaxland had been working on the project since July last year and sources said he had completed about half the first volume, which was to cover the establishment of the Defence Signals Bureau in 1947 through to the 1970s.
He was commissioned to write the official history by former ASD boss Mike Burgess, who said at the time Professor Blaxland was "uniquely placed" to lead the project because of his "in-depth, front-line understanding" of Australia's intelligence community while the ASD praised him as "one of Australia's most experienced and respected military historians".
Professor Blaxland is a former intelligence officer with the Australian Defence Force who co-authored The Official History of ASIO.
In a speech earlier this earlier Ms Noble said it had become more important over the years for the government to be "transparent" about the activities of ASD.
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