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Estimates: Australian Security Intelligence Organisation

Question
Lee Rhiannon 18 Oct 2011

Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings, 18 October 2011

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation

  • Mr Roger Wilkins AO, Secretary, Attorney-General's Department
  • Mr Tony Sheehan, Deputy Secretary, National Security and Criminal Justice Group
  • Mr Geoff McDonald PSM, First Assistant Secretary, National Security Law and Policy Division
  • Mr David Irvine AO, Director General of Security, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation

Full transcript available here

Senator RHIANNON: There are a number of young Indonesians in Australian jails who worked on boats that brought asylum seekers to Australia. Does ASIO have any involvement with these young Indonesians—I am referring to the young men who are under age—at any stage once they reach Australia?

Mr Irvine: Off the top of my head, no.

Senator RHIANNON: Does that mean no?

Mr Irvine: To the best of my knowledge, definitely no. I am not sure whether they have been interviewed, but I think it would be most unlikely.

Senator RHIANNON: As there does seem to be some uncertainty, could you take it on notice, please.

Mr Irvine: Yes, I will take it on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: ASIO uses the term 'issue motivated groups'. Looking at publications in recent years, it appears that that term has evolved in use. I will make some references and then I would like you to comment. On page vii in the 2005-06 annual report it says:

ASIO does not investigate lawful protest activity.

There is a more significant quote on page 49 about the Commonwealth Games and the Forbes CEO conference:

The security of major events, including the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, the Forbes CEO Conference in Sydney and other events attracting the convergence of issue motivated groups was a focus for ASIO in 2005-06.

The way the term 'focus for ASIO' is used there, I am assuming that you are actually gathering intelligence on those organisations. Correct me if I am wrong. In submission No. 47, 26 June 2009, to the Standing Committee on Environment and Communications, it states about e-crime:

The perpetrators of such attacks can range from the ubiquitous hacker through to criminals, issue-motivated groups, terrorist organisations and nations.

There you are talking about attacks from issue motivated groups and you are linking them with various other organisations. The current annual report states:

Australian issue-motivated groups in general use legitimate protest to publicise and further the cause they advocate ... ASIO's interest in protest is limited to that which is unlawful or violent.

It appears to me that the term 'issue motivated groups' is at times used in different ways. Could I ask how you do define that and whether you are monitoring and spying on issue based groups.

Mr Irvine: Issue motivated groups is a term we use within ASIO to describe those groups who conduct activities that might lead to violence or to activities that are prejudicial to security. We look at a number of groups—and I am not going to say which ones—and in most cases we can be confident that they are going to express their advocacy, their protest, their dissent or express their views in ways that are lawful but in particular in ways that are not violent and not prejudicial to security. It is very hard then to give you a firm definition that covers all of the groups, including those who may not be involved in violent activity or protest.

Senator RHIANNON: I certainly note that life is very fluid in social movements as it is in life in general. But as ASIO has been around for a long time and protest movements have been around a long time, we can see that there is a certain style and peaceful action has been the very dominant way those groups have interacted over the years. Do you agree with that statement?

Mr Irvine: Yes, I do. I would also say we need to know that.

Senator RHIANNON: When you make that statement after my statement, does that mean you therefore have to be gathering intelligence on those organisations to determine that, even though there is quite a long history now with these social movements as part of Australian civil society?

Mr Irvine: Asking the question the way you have, you make the gathering of intelligence a grand and mysterious matter. In many cases, our monitoring of violent groups or groups that could have a tendency to violence will be a strict intelligence exercise. In many other cases, it is a simple matter of liaison with local authorities to assess whether or not a particular group needs to be looked at further. Most groups in Australia clearly fall into that latter category, thankfully.

Senator RHIANNON: That leads well into my next question. If I understood you correctly, you said that for many of these groups you basically liaise with local authorities, which I guess means checking out whether you need to gather more intelligence on those before you initiate an intelligence operation. Is that how it would work?

Mr Irvine: That is certainly an important way it would work. It is not the only way but it is an important way.

Senator RHIANNON: That would mean the local police. Forest protests is one example I was going to ask about. Does the monitoring of issue motivated groups include forest protest groups, who are active in protecting native forests? Let us take the south-east of New South Wales and north-east of Victoria, where there are regular, local protests. In those instances, would you check in with the local police or are there are other local authorities you would check in with to determine if you had to look at it further?

Mr Irvine: In protests of that nature, if we knew about them, we would be most unlikely to pursue any inquiries whatsoever.

Senator RHIANNON: There is a plethora of climate change groups around at the moment and many people would describe them as issue motivated groups. How would you handle that situation?

Mr Irvine: The expression of an advocacy for climate change is surely a lawful activity in which we would have no interest, unless we had information that it would lead to violence or was in some way prejudicial to national security as national security is defined in the ASIO Act.

Senator RHIANNON: In the 2005-06 report, I found a section a bit surprising, partly because it was fairly limiting, and I am interested to know whether this has changed. On page 44 of the report under the heading 'Developing our engagement with the Australian community' you talk about that engagement involving enhanced dialogue. But the only examples given are speaking to the Islamic and Jewish communities. It is obviously excellent that you are doing that, but I wondered why you just give those as examples of engagement with the Australian community. Has the policy broadened out since 2005-06?

Mr Irvine: Without going into any operational details, there are very obvious reasons why we would wish to talk to those communities, but there are other communities with which we have contact. I will not name them. Indeed, we also talk and work with communities on a broader basis, not simply ethnic or religious communities.

Senator RHIANNON: You just said that you would not name the others. You have named them but you will not—

Mr Irvine: You named them actually.

Senator RHIANNON: I am quoting from your annual report.

Mr Irvine: Oh, I see, yes. I apologise.

Senator RHIANNON: I am just curious as to why you name Islamic and Jewish communities but you do not name others.

Mr Irvine: I think because they are very visible areas where there are potential threats, including to those communities.

Senator RHIANNON: I will finish up with just a few process questions. I see that the 2011 Independent Review of the Intelligence Community is underway. What is the status of this and will it be made public? I do not need a detailed answer; I am just interested in following it and understanding how ASIO interacts with it.

Mr Irvine: The Independent Review of the Intelligence Community is being conducted by a former Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, Mr Robert Cornall, and a university academic and head of one of the University of Melbourne colleges, Dr Rufus Black. ASIO has cooperated fully with that inquiry. The results are not public. My understanding is that at some point the government may decide to make elements of that report public, but that is a decision for the government.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I want to get an update on COAG's review of counterterrorism legislation. Again, I am interested in the level of ASIO involvement. I am not sure whether it has commenced. If it has not commenced I would be interested in the reasons, if you know them, for the delayed commencement of the review and also the time line on it—when it is due finally to commence, be completed et cetera.

Mr Wilkins: It might be useful if we answer that for you. I might get Tony Sheehan to answer. It is actually one that the department is dealing with.

Mr Sheehan: You are correct that the review has not commenced yet. It is referred to in legislation; preparations have been underway in the department for the review; it has not commenced, though, at this stage.

Senator RHIANNON: We are talking about the one that was agreed to on 10 February 2006 and was supposed to start in 2010?

Mr Sheehan: Yes. I will just have to check that the date in 2006 is correct. That time line sounds correct, and it was flagged for five years hence, as I understand it. I might just check that, if I may.

Mr McDonald: That is correct. The review was to occur five years after the legislation at the end of 2005. However, that was not a statutory obligation so much as an aspiration. The commencement of the review—

Mr Wilkins: Senator, there is not a requirement in the act as to when exactly it should happen. COAG decided to delay it. It is a COAG prerogative. I think there was some concern about how it would interact with the appointment of the monitor that is being setting up for terrorism legislation. So it has drifted. We are all ready and set to go. I think it is just a question of when appointments et cetera will be settled.

Interaction with the legislation monitor is one of the issues. The monitor covers some of the same fields as this review would cover and, except that the monitor cannot look at state legislation, this COAG review would. There are also a number of reviews that have been carried out independently by the states, and I think we wanted to take stock of all that as well. As to why COAG decided, exactly—I am speculating, to some extent, but I think it was because of that crossover. But it will occur.

Senator RHIANNON: Am I correctly understanding that the hold-up essentially is that the people to carry out this review of counterterrorism legislation have not been appointed, or is it more than it has not been decided to do it?

Mr Wilkins: I think people have been identified. They have not been appointed.

Senator RHIANNON: So people have got the job to do it?

Mr Wilkins: No, they have been nominated, I think it is probably fair to say. I am not sure that they have finally been signed off by COAG yet, have they?

Mr Sheehan: I think that is correct.

Senator RHIANNON: Can who those people are be publicly disclosed? Can we understand what the process is?

Mr Wilkins: No, I think COAG will at the right time announce that; it is not my prerogative to do that. It is being sorted out.

Senator RHIANNON: And we do not know what the right time is yet?

Mr Wilkins: No. I think that is a question that really needs to be directed at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, since they are in charge of the COAG process.

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