The revelation by ABC TV's Four Corners that China is suspected of pinching the blueprints for ASIO's allegedly high-security and massively expensive new building on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin ought really to be filed under the heading of "payback".
In 1995, Fairfax Media revealed that ASIO had managed to riddle China's palatial embassy on the other side of the lake with fibre optic cables. It was one of the great bugging efforts - the cables had been secreted throughout the building as it was being constructed. No word uttered, no telephone call nor transmission of data between China's diplomats and their masters in Beijing would be missed.
The Chinese are now building a new embassy in Canberra. This time, to ensure there is no repetition of the covert bugging, they have secured the right to ensure every construction worker is imported directly from China. No Australians on site, thank you. Could be ASIO.
Just to rub in in, the Chinese - according to Four Corners - have employed a much more sophisticated method of penetrating ASIO. Using cyber hacking techniques, it seems they have gone through ASIO's back door, sliding through a construction company's computer system to snare the floor plans and the locations of communications cabling, servers and security systems.
ASIO now has the task of reconfiguring the internal plans - at the cost of some $170 million - before it can use the $630 million headquarters.
If indeed this occurred, you'd have to wonder why ASIO didn't make sure in the first place that every contractor had about a thousand secure firewalls on their computer systems.
Perhaps it's not so surprising. While the edifice was being built, a 19-year-old man managed to scale the chainlink security fence. He fell into a deep basement and lay there, injured, for 36 hours before he was found. A platoon of spies, you'd imagine, could have planted bugs throughout the foundations in 36 hours.
Bugging hasn't always been a triumph in Canberra.
During the Cold War years of the 1950s, following the spectacular defection to Australia of the Soviet spy Vladmir Petrov, the Soviets quit Canberra for several years. By the time they returned in 1959, ASIO, in cahoots with Britain's Secret Intelligence Service in what was wonderfully named Operation Mole, had made sure the Soviet Embassy was wired for sound. After waiting a year before activating the system to ensure the Russians didn't detect it by electronic sweep, ASIO agents listened and listened, for long months. And not one word was ever spoken by a Russian in the specially bugged room.
ASIO was reduced to setting up camera equipment above a funeral parlour across the road from the Soviet Embassy, snapping pictures for many years of everyone who entered or left the place.
The Soviet - now Russian Embassy - has always been a pretty dowdy place, and at one point the Australian government offered to build a new embassy for the USSR in another area of Canberra. Nyet, was the response. The old embassy, it seems, had a direct line-of-sight to the Telecom (later Telstra) tower on the city's Black Mountain. Very handy for listening in to all telecommunications transmissions to and from the national capital through an array of listening devices on the embassy roof.
The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), which runs spies across the world, has its headquarters on one of the higher floors of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, just down the hill from Parliament House. It is said to be particularly secure. But just in case eavesdroppers feel like listening in to whispered conversations with high-tech boom microphones that can pick up sound from a distance through the tiny vibrations issuing from windows, every ASIS window is specially designed at the cost of many thousands of dollars to be vibration free.
While cyber spying has overtaken mere electronic bugging, the game of spookery still relies on a quiet word with the right contact over a beer, a coffee, a meal or a park bench. To lend it a little bureaucratically blessed nomenclature, it is known as HUMINT - human intelligence.
Human intelligence, the intriguing stuff of John le Carre novels, has long turned out to be a fraught game in Canberra. A slew of Russians have been forced to fly out of the country over the years after being caught chatting a bit too much, the occasional Mossad agent from Israel has been reported to have shuffled off and only a few weeks ago it was revealed a number of South Korean agents had been leaching trade secrets from a local bureaucrat, who lost his job.
Trade secrets have become the post-Cold War prizes. About two decades ago a couple of Czech agents found themselves unwelcome after bugging rooms at a popular Canberra hotel where movers and shakers of industry were meeting. It remains unknown whether any of the secrets learned have helped the Czech Republic's evolution from Soviet basketcase to modern economy.
It remains unknown, too, whether China has gained anything from pinching the blueprints of the new ASIO headquarters.
But you can be sure the game continues. Spookery never sleeps, particularly in the cyber age.
Pic - "Down Under? Uh, more like ev where!"