They’re the super top secret eyes who check-up on our spies and very soon there will a few be more of them.
The Office of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (OIGIS ), the body charged with ensuring that intelligence agencies stay within their mandated legal boundaries, has quietly revealed it’s on the hunt for a small pack of around five extra watchdogs to boost its patrol numbers.
It’s a job that carries with it powers to probe that are otherwise unparalleled in the public sector or wider security landscape.
If you’ve ever wondered who actually checks if the bugs planted by Australian Security Intelligence Organisation or the phone and data taps used by the Australian Signals Directorate are squeaky clean, the duty falls to the IGIS which hasn’t previously shown any reticence about giving our spooks a public rap over the knuckles when matters go awry – even if it doesn’t itself seek publicity.
This year the raft of strong new intrusive powers being granted to agencies with a mandate to undertake covert intelligence collection and electronic eavesdropping has the OIGIS frankly admitting its workload is about to get far bigger.
The OIGIS’ latest annual report notes that the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 which bolsters the intrusive powers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service – “would increase the scope and complexity of oversight arrangements and the workload of the OIGIS.”
It says the “principal challenge” over the coming year will to “ensure the office develops and maintains the technical capability to continue providing effective assurance about the legality and propriety of intelligence agencies’ extended activities, while maintaining the capacity to respond to ministerial requests, initiate inquiries, and handle complaints as necessary.”
However most salacious part of the annual report of the agency is allowed to rifle through the records of our spy agencies is its yearly catalogue of legal breaches and mistakes.
With ASIO’s workload sharply increasing, it’s perhaps inevitable some slip-ups occur if you’re listening in on persons of interest – even if they also work for ASIO.
The annual report reveals the agency somehow managed to illegally bug itself.
“ASIO intercepted, without warrant, calls made from one of its own regional offices due to a technical error. The data was deleted and processes put in place to ensure it does not happen again,” the annual report noted.
Telecommunications companies, which forward intercepted material to ASIO, had their issues too.
The OIGIS said one breach “involved the malfunctioning of a telecommunications provider’s equipment which resulted in non-warranted data being forwarded to ASIO systems. Once the error was identified, ASIO removed all non-warranted data from its systems.”
There’s also the human trait of erring, or in the case of spies peeking.
Notably, the circumstances under which ASIO staff can (or could) access intelligence holdings on their friends and neighbours appears to have raised the biggest eyebrow from highly respected public servant Dr Vivienne Thom, who heads the OIGIS.
In a probe of “access to ASIO’s information holdings by staff” the Inspector General questioned whether it was “appropriate” for one ASIO staffer to give another personal information on a member of the public as part of an internal security investigation – particularly when one of them “had expressed concerns that the individual might pose a risk to the officer’s own personal safety.”
“I was advised at the time that all ASIO staff members could access some ASIO holdings to perform checks on individuals, including neighbours and social contacts that might relate to personal security or safety,” the IGIS wrote.
“I expressed concern that ASIO did not have formal processes in place to ensure that personal information in ASIO’s holdings about a member of the public could not be released to a staff member or accessed directly by the staff member.”
“In my view, this is out of step with community expectations in respect of privacy.”
The annual report said that in response to the concerns raised, in June 2014 ASIO has implemented a new security policy about how information its holdings are used within the agency.
“The policy emphasises that information holdings within ASIO are only for official purposes and that ASIO staff are not to access ASIO information holdings to obtain information which may be relevant to their personal circumstances,” the IGIS said.
“Staff with security concerns should raise this with the relevant area within ASIO, which will conduct the necessary checks.”
IN FROM THE COLD, OUT IN THE OPEN
The Office of the IGIS has made just a dozen public announcements over its 15-year long existence most of which feature the most prominent controversies involving Australian spy agencies to see the light of day.
More recently they include investigations into the so-called ‘Prisoner X’ affair centred around a Melbourne man who was allegedly recruited by the Israeli foreign intelligence service Mossad and later apparently took his own life while in custody in a high security prison in Israel.
One affair that received less publicity but, ultimately affected thousands of public servants, was the outsourcing of vetting for checks needed for Defence security clearances that were in turn bungled or fudged. In that case former Defence staff blew the whistle on their then private employer for cutting corners on clearance checks to keep costs down.
So great were the concerns over the extent of clearances that were potentially at risk of having been compromised that a massive re-checking effort, at major expense was needed.
There was also the 2009 probe into whether the then Defence Signals Directorate inappropriately bugged then serving Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon following a series of media reports.
To get to the bottom of those kinds of highly sensitive probes, the IGIS retains compulsive powers that make even hardened spooks watch their back.
“When undertaking an inquiry the Inspector-General has strong investigative powers, akin to those of a royal commission,” part of the information for potential recruits states.
“Recent IGIS inquiries include an inquiry into the attendance of legal representatives at ASIO interviews, an inquiry into the use of weapons and self-defence techniques in ASIS, and an inquiry into the analytic independence of assessments by ASIO, DIO and ONA.”
Staff also get to investigate and “manage” complaints the public as well as “current or former intelligence and security agency employees.”
Dealing with public complaints can have its challenges. A former Inspector General dryly noted in an previous annual report that a proportion of complaints appeared to come from people with mental health issues, and it was unrealistic that some scenarios – like mind control via televisions at the behest of spy agencies were plausible
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