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ASIO on surveillance overreach

Estimates & Committees
Scott Ludlam 18 Nov 2013

Senator LUDLAM: Welcome back, Mr Irvine. Your annual report touches on concerns that you express about a home-grown Edward Snowden. The words in the annual report are along the lines of, 'Espionage activity extends to the threat of a trusted insider.' What preventative measures, whether they be deterrents or threats-you can be as general or as specific as you like-are you taking to deter what you call 'the threat of a trusted insider' within your organisation?

Mr Irvine : It is not simply a question of 'within our own organisation' but a question relating to people within the broader government. People who are employed by ASIO have to have appropriate security clearances which are only obtained after an extremely rigorous and intrusive vetting process. That process is repeated throughout the career of an ASIO officer. We rely on the effectiveness of that vetting process to a fair degree. Secondly, the organisation itself has a necessarily strongly developed sense of internal security. It is part of the psychology, if you like-the DNA-of an ASIO officer. Thirdly, we have a whole range of security procedures and practices which must be observed within the organisation in terms of access to material and material that can be taken in and out of the building and, if so, how and so on. The issue, then, of a trusted insider-and all of our people by definition have to be trusted-is: can we detect in time someone who has betrayed that trust.

Senator LUDLAM: You would be aware of course, in the context of some of your counterpart agencies in the United States, that both Edward Snowden and Private First Class Chelsea Manning were also security cleared.

Mr Irvine : Yes, I am aware of that.

Senator LUDLAM: Are the standards that you hold your employees to higher than those in some of our counterpart agencies in the United States?

Mr Irvine : I cannot talk for the counterpart agencies in the United States, but I am satisfied that in the standards that we adhere to, and that other agencies within the Australian government seek to adhere to, we certainly do aspire to be very high.

Senator LUDLAM: No doubt you would be aware of reports in The Guardian and on the ABC this morning in which a PowerPoint presentation with ASD's logo all over it is being put into the public domain. This is an agency so secret that we cannot even call them before these estimates committees, unless, Senator Brandis, you want to advise us there has been a change of policy in that regard. I will pause there, if you have anything you want to add.

Senator Brandis: Do you have a question, Senator?

Senator LUDLAM: Firstly, do you intend to have ASD be able to be called before budget estimates committees and, if not, why not?

Senator Brandis: The ASD is an agency within the Department of Defence. I am not the Minister for Defence; however, I would expect that the pre-existing practice of that committee would be adhered to by the new government.

Senator LUDLAM: I will pursue that later in the week, but thank you for your advice, Senator. Mr Irvine, that is one example that comes to mind of where security practices overseas that are perhaps of a lesser standard than what you are trying to uphold here in Australia have led to Australian material being plastered all over the internet. Again, that appears to have come from inside the agency. It must have done.

Mr Irvine : I think it is obvious that material that has been released by Mr Snowden and is now in the public realm is a matter of very great concern, and when that material is Australian material it is obviously of very great concern to the Australian government.

Senator LUDLAM: I thought so. Without trespassing anywhere near operational matters, would you describe there as being a fairly high degree of collaboration between ASIO, your companion agencies here in Australia and your counterparts in the United States?

Mr Irvine : There is good collaboration and productive collaboration between ASIO, other Australian agencies and friends around the world.

Senator LUDLAM: How much material? Have you done an audit of any kind, subsequent to those disclosures being made by Mr Snowden through media organisations around the world, of exactly how much of ASIO's material might find its way into the public domain through those channels?

Mr Irvine : I think it stands to reason that that is something that we would do, but I am not going to comment on the nature or scope at this stage.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay. You have conducted some internal review or audit or something?

Mr Irvine : Yes.

Senator LUDLAM: When did that occur?

Mr Irvine : As soon as it became clear what sort of information was being put out into the public domain.

Senator LUDLAM: Do you have a clear idea of exactly how much of your internal documentation, such as this PowerPoint presentation, has been shared with United States agencies?

Mr Irvine : We have a good idea of what information we have shared with other allied and friendly agencies, but I will not go any further than that.

Senator LUDLAM: Does it disturb you somewhat that the US government was in possession of PowerPoint presentations from the ASD disclosing-

Mr Irvine : That is a question that has to be answered by the Department of Defence and the ASD apparatus.

Senator LUDLAM: Do you share my suspicion that one day it will be an ASIO PowerPoint and that we will be asking these questions about your work directly?

Mr Irvine : I most certainly hope not.

Senator LUDLAM: Under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act why are you not required to report your records identifying metadata collection as, for example, the Federal Police and a number of other agencies are?

Mr Irvine : We are very keen to ensure that the nature of our intelligence inquiries and investigations is kept secret so that it is not possible to determine who and what we are targeting.

Senator LUDLAM: Would you not, though, apply that same line of logic to the Federal Police? They investigate serious organised crime.

Mr Irvine : The Federal Police operate in a different sort of environment and it is not, I think, right to compare apples to apples. I would add, too, that the notion that these figures are not reported publically, does not equate to the notion that this is a process that goes on willy-nilly, unregulated, unmonitored or without any oversight. For the use of metadata in our organisation we need quite specific internal authorities. Our use of the data, our attempts to get that data and so on are carefully monitored by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. There is a highly developed process of accountability which I would hope would give people an assurance that we are not acquiring data willy-nilly for prurient purposes. Everything we do has to be in accordance with our act and the telecommunications interception act.

Senator LUDLAM: I think you might have answered my next question pre-emptively. So you do keep substantive internal records that would enable you to identify, at least to the IGIS's satisfaction, the number of citizens whose telecommunications stored data have been intercepted or monitored, whether metadata or substantive data.

Mr Irvine : The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security has the right to access all ASIO records and data and files, and does monitor the use both of metadata with internal ASIO processes and the use of warranted interception activities approved by the Attorney as they occur.

Senator LUDLAM: Would you have to put up a specific flag if you were obtaining the metadata through a warrantless process or had applied a warrant to access material relating to members of parliament, senators and journalists in this building?

Mr Irvine : I have answered this question before-I think, probably, you asked it-in the following way: the ASIO act, and the responsibilities that have been given to ASIO under that act, require it to investigate and advise the government on all threats to security as defined by part IV of the act, no matter who the individual is.

Senator LUDLAM: We have had variants on this conversation before, probably more than once. Are you required to notify the IGIS if an Australian member of parliament is required to be under investigation, either through a warranted or a warrantless process?

Mr Irvine : I do not believe that there is a formal requirement for that. I think my practice would be, were it to occur, that I would probably notify the IGIS.

Senator LUDLAM: Are you implying that it has not occurred thus far?

Mr Irvine : No, I am not implying either way.

Senator LUDLAM: It is always worth asking. Are you currently surveilling members of parliament or senators?

Mr Irvine : No.

Senator LUDLAM: Sometimes you let your guard down, but not often.

CHAIR: I assume that you treat everyone in Australia the same if they fall into the categories of your requirements under the act.

Mr Irvine : In exactly the same way as law enforcement is required to treat everyone equally.

Senator LUDLAM: To traverse some ground that we have discussed before, I am interested, again without compromising ongoing operations, in whether or not you are engaged in surveillance of people who are planning peaceful demonstrations at the G20 meeting next year in Brisbane.

Mr Irvine : I am not going to answer that, but you do know that our remit, our requirement, does require us to examine whether or not there are possibilities for political violence or potential political violence taking place. That is under one of the part IV elements of the heads of security.

Senator LUDLAM: Violence is one of your key threshold tests, is it not, for when something is-

Mr Irvine : It is an important threshold, yes.

Senator LUDLAM: It is not the only one but it is a key one.

Mr Irvine : It is a key one.

Senator LUDLAM: To the degree to which intelligence agencies are still under control of democratic institutions around the Western world, at least, would you agree that people's confidence has been shaken since the revelations about what is occurring in the United States have become widespread?

CHAIR: I am not sure that that is a question for this-

Senator LUDLAM: Shall we see whether Mr Irvine is prepared to take the question?

Senator Brandis: Senator, you are asking for some political commentary by Mr Irvine. He may have views about this.

Senator LUDLAM: Some of Mr Irvine's views are quite instructive.

Senator Brandis: I thought we were here to consider the budget estimates. I am sure Mr Irvine would have both well informed and illuminating views on all range of political topics, but I am struggling to see how he has opinions about political topics bear upon the budget estimates, Senator.

Senator LUDLAM: All right. Let us get back to specifics then. Do you have any visibility of foreign heads of state or are you restricted entirely to domestic operations, Mr Irvine?

Mr Irvine : I operate under the heads of security in the ASIO act.

Senator LUDLAM: So I would need to put questions regarding the scandal that has broken open today regarding the Indonesian government to ASIS, who also do not show up, or to ASD?

CHAIR: Senator, you take your own advice on that.

Mr Irvine : I am not going to comment on what essentially are turning into foreign policy issues. My responsibilities are specifically for security intelligence under the ASIO act.

Senator LUDLAM: I will leave it there. Thank you.


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