Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation
Senator RHIANNON: Do ASIO advise their staff working overseas not to use aid agencies as cover and not to involve aid workers in intelligence gathering, directly or indirectly?
Mr Irvine : I cannot see circumstances where ASIO would use aid agencies as cover.
Senator RHIANNON: The question was do you provide any advice to your staff about how they interact with people who are working for overseas aid agencies, working on overseas aid projects.
CHAIR: Mr Irvine, you do not need me to tell you this—you have been around a lot longer than I—but do not feel obliged to answer questions that may impact on your operations.
Mr Irvine : Thank you for that advice. Certainly I would not respond to questions relating to operations. At the same time, you have to understand that a very large part of ASIO's work is actually done in Australia and aid agencies very largely work overseas.
Senator RHIANNON: Considering that many of your staff are working out of embassies overseas and, in some cases, conducting operations overseas, do we take it from your answer that no advice is provided on this issue?
Mr Irvine : The basic premise of your question is that we have many staff overseas. We have a relatively small number of staff overseas, who are in declared liaison relationships with counterpart agencies. So their operational activities tend to focus very much on exchanges of information with the counterpart agencies.
Senator RHIANNON: In light of the accusations that ASIS—whom you do have relations with—used aid programs in East Timor to spy on the East Timor government, has ASIO revised in any way the advice that it gives to staff?
Mr Irvine : There is no point in giving advice to staff because it is just not an issue that arises in most of our work. If it did arise, it would certainly be covered by operational considerations.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying there is various operational advice that staff should not engage with programs or—
Mr Irvine : No, we do not give that sort of advice. It is not necessary.
Senator RHIANNON: I understand that the Africa-Australia Mining Industry Group are holding an event this week with ASIO and, as part of the publicity for it, your website states that it is with the objective of 'making doing business in Africa more productive'. Does ASIO work to enhance the corporate interests of mining companies overseas?
Mr Irvine : No. ASIO works to provide security advice to elements of the private sector who are overseas, and the nature of the advice we provide is what we call 'threat advice'. We advise people of potential threats in certain countries overseas—as indeed we advise the government—and we provide that advice when ministers and parliamentarians visit overseas as well.
Senator RHIANNON: Could you explain the language that is used to promote the ASIO Business Liaison Unit workshop about making doing business in Africa more productive. It talks about 'possible partnering opportunities' and 'providing information briefings to executives and staff'. The explanation you have just given around threats does not come through here; the emphasis is on making business more productive.
Mr Irvine : I am not aware of the document you are quoting from.
Senator RHIANNON: It is from the ASIO BLU website.
Mr Irvine : Let me say to you that our Business Liaison Unit is just that, and it is there to provide security advice to Australian companies whether they are operating overseas or here in Australia. And if the safety of Australians operating overseas working for those companies is enhanced, then maybe their productivity will be enhanced too.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you run any workshops with any other Australian business sectors such as the finance sector overseas?
Mr Irvine : Yes, we do. I would have to check back to find out exactly which sectors, but our business website has a number of subscribers from the private sector. I would need to check which sectors.
Senator RHIANNON: Could you take it on notice to tell me what the other sectors are—because it was only coming through that it is with the resource industry.
Mr Irvine : I will take that on notice, yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you running these workshops for other areas apart from Africa?
Mr Irvine : That was a specific workshop presumably requested by that sector so that we would provide security advice in relation to doing business in Africa. But, yes, we can and we do, including doing business in Australia.
Senator RHIANNON: Have you also been working in Africa assisting companies in Africa as well as in Australia with their security arrangements?
Mr Irvine : You would have to rephrase that question. I cannot get a specific handle on what you are asking.
Senator RHIANNON: Okay. You have explained that you do this work in Australia. Do you do the same work or similar work in Africa?
Mr Irvine : We do not visit Africa to do that sort of work, no—well, we haven't, certainly not in my time.
Senator RHIANNON: So, in terms of providing security advice to these companies, if you are not visiting Africa, are you basing it on intelligence that you share with other agencies?
Mr Irvine : We are basing it on information that we receive from overt sources and that we receive from other intelligence agencies. Our principal role is to make assessments of security threats, and that is the sort of advice that we are providing.
Senator RHIANNON: Considering this term comes through a lot when you read about the ASIO (BLU) workshops, could you define what you mean by 'more productive' in the case of the Australia-Africa business partnerships?
Mr Irvine : Simply in the sense that, if there is stronger security awareness and companies are able to take account of that awareness and protect their staff more effectively, operating in alien and sometimes hostile environments, then that will have an impact, I would think, on the productivity of Australian companies operating in that area.
Senator RHIANNON: Does that include the impacts that possible security threats could have on their contracts, the actual mining operations?
Mr Irvine : No, I think we are primarily concerned about the impact that security threats will have on personnel.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Chair.