Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee
ATTORNEY-GENERAL'S PORTFOLIO - Australian Security Intelligence Organisation
CHAIR: … Senator Rhiannon, the floor is yours. We are doing this in 15 minute segments, but perhaps you will not even have 15 minutes.
Senator RHIANNON: That may well be possible. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity. Does ASIO know anyone who had previously been in the Sri Lankan army, navy or was senior in the Sri Lankan government who now works for Australian Defence, the Australian Federal Police or in any other senior government capacity?
Mr Irvine : I could not answer that question off the top of my head and I am not sure, given the nature of ASIO's knowledge of people in the Public Service or in the armed forces, that I would actually be able to answer that from an operational point of view.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you mean that from an operational point of view you are not able to release the information because that information about foreign people who have been in foreign armies or navies or the defence in any way is deemed to be a security risk? If you cannot release it, could you explain why it is? Is it seen as a security risk?
Mr Irvine : To be able to assist you in this I would really like to know a bit more precisely what it is that you are getting at. Certainly, no matter what people have done in the past, people who work in sensitive government positions will be subject to security assessments of some form or another, not all of them conducted by ASIO. The Defence department has a very large vetting agency which conducts the majority of security vetting, up to a certain level anyway, on behalf of the government.
If, in the process of security vetting, people who have come from other countries who have served in the armed forces of other countries or whatever, no doubt the security vetting agencies would take that into account and inquire into it to see if there were any issues of national security relevance. I have given you a very general answer. I would be very hesitant to give you a very specific answer about specific nationalities or types of people, habits of people, finances of people, all of the sorts of things that go into a security vetting process.
Senator RHIANNON: Can I just check: are you unable to share that information for operational reasons or because ASIO would not have that level of detail available, or both?
Mr Irvine : We would have that level of detail available in relation to people who we have been required to vet for security purposes or to investigate for national security purposes, those purposes being set out under our act. But right across government there is a need to vet people for security purposes for the handling of classified information and so on, which is conducted by certainly one very large other agency.
Senator RHIANNON: Just to share with you, because I did raise some of these issues with the head of the AFP the other night, Mr Negus, and he commented when I was asking about any AFP issues to do with related matters. I will just read you his quote:
It depends how wide you cast your net. If you are saying that the provision of intelligence and the exchange of intelligence means that we are involved in disruption, the answer is yes.
So, that was just in relationship to issues within Sri Lanka—
Mr Irvine : Sorry, if I may, that seems to be answering a very different question from the one I thought you were asking me.
Senator RHIANNON: Yes, I was just trying to paint a picture of these issues around Sri Lankan authorities and that we are dealing with a government that is under a cloud over human rights issues. The civil war only ended in 2009. There are, I understand, AFP and ASIO people still operating out of the High Commission and Mr Negus shared that information so—
Mr Irvine : I am not going to say what ASIO is doing, but I do not think you can make that assumption.
Senator RHIANNON: Sorry, which assumption?
Mr Irvine : That ASIO people are operating out of any particular mission.
Senator RHIANNON: Sorry, I thought that that was on the record. I apologise if I was inaccurate.
Mr Irvine : No, that is certainly not on the record.
Senator RHIANNON: I thought that there were ASIO people based at the High Commission. I apologise for that.
Mr Irvine : I do not confirm or deny where our people are, but I do counsel against jumping to assumptions, if I can say that.
Senator RHIANNON: No. I apologise for that. We were just talking about AFP. Coming back to the question: there is a cloud over the Sri Lankan government with regard to human rights issues; the civil war has ended in 2009; we do have senior intelligence people stationed there; so therefore it would appear that it would be relevant to the security within our country if people who had been employed in the Sri Lankan defence forces or senior levels in the government are in any senior levels within our defence forces or within ASIO. That was the context of the question.
Mr Irvine : If I may say so, I think that is jumping to a conclusion about people who have worked in any government that may have a cloud over it coming to Australia. From a national security point of view, where that person was referred to us we would look at a whole range of factors and the provenance of the official would be one of them, but it would not be the only one.
Senator RHIANNON: Just a specific question: are there any former members of the Sri Lankan army or Sri Lankan police working for ASIO in Australia or in Sri Lanka at the moment?
Mr Irvine : I will not answer the second part of that question and I do not know the answer to the first.
Senator RHIANNON: Can you take it on notice?
Mr Irvine : No. I am very hesitant to go into any detail on the demographics of ASIO.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. That is the end of my questions but—
Mr Irvine : Could I say, just as one final point, if your questioning was going where I think it was going, I can assure you that ASIO, in its relations with foreign governments and foreign intelligence services, takes human rights factors into account. It is conscious of people who have ulterior motives seeking to join ASIO or whatever, and we do have processes within the organisation which enable us, and enable me, to guarantee the integrity of the organisation to the best of my ability.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Chair, just if I could, Mr Irvine wrote to me recently about a recent estimates and a question that I asked. It concerned a website. I just wanted to add, Mr Irvine, that I got advice about that and I will make the correction because it was the description of the website. I am happy to do that and I have been advised I can do that through the committee to get it on the record.
Mr Irvine : Thank you, Senator Rhiannon.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.