This article first appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of Government News.
Those responsible for upholding the safety of Australians in their roles as guardians of public and government security must now face the challenge that the most potent threats could be internal.
Julian Bajkowski assesses what’s keeping the watchers awake at night.
It takes a lot to get under the skin of the gently spoken chief of Australia’s domestic spy agency ASIO, David Irvine, but when you do, you’ll know about it.
So it was in early August when the Director General of Security used the conclusion of a frank and practical speech to the Australian Institute of International Affairs to take a bite out of The Australian newspaper over a headline that proclaimed “We’ll fight Islam for 100 years”.
As families in suburbs and towns across the nation are on a daily basis exposed to the nauseating horror of unfolding extremism in Iraq and Syria ‑ where some Australians are known to be active participants ‑ Irvine still level-headedly cautioned it’s not religion he and Australia’s security agencies are fighting, but terrorism.
It’s not a popular stand, certainly not a populist one, when the nation’s spy chief takes on one of the media champions of the government of the day by publicly declaring he’s been “upset” by a headline.
“Let me reiterate, we are not fighting Islam, in Australia or anywhere else. We are fighting the terrorism that kills innocent people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, as the actual text of the article went on to imply, belying the absurdity of the headline,” Irvine said.
He’s similarly adamant Australians “should not let the phenomenon of violent Islamist extremism destroy the community harmony that is such an essential characteristic of Australia’s highly successful multi-cultural democracy. That is precisely what violent extremism and terrorism want to do.”
For ASIO, that means building trust in communities where there is often an intense suspicion and loathing for law enforcement and a very strong perception of unfair police targeting and stereotyping.
The stakes are doubly high because avoidable rips in the fragile social fabric of regions like South Western Sydney could potentially provide just the wrong kind negative inspiration that enhances the prospects for the recruitment of individuals prone to radicalisation.
Irvine, who has headed ASIO for five years, certainly isn’t understating the threat. Although he says that only “a very small level of support amongst the fringe of the fringe of the Muslim community here in Australia” exists for the terrorist insurgency, the numbers of local recruits drawn to fighting overseas has never been seen before.
“The number of Australians who have sought to take part in the Syria and Iraq conflicts, or have sought to support extremists fighting there, is unprecedented,” Irvine said. “We assess around 150 Australians have become involved with Islamist extremists in Syria and Iraq, either by travelling to the region, attempting to travel or supporting groups there from Australia.
“This is not the first time we have seen involvement of Australians in overseas jihadist conflicts. But their number was much smaller and few were involved in the type and level of violence we are now seeing.”
But the rise of home-grown terrorists doesn’t mean that previous insider threats ASIO and other security agencies have needed to counter have
The Post-Snowden reality
When Russian computer security entrepreneur Eugene Kaspersky took to the stage of Canberra’s National Press Club, he quipped that the volume of classified material let loose by the now fugitive National Security Agency contractor meant that the threat from Australian Wikileaks figurehead Julian Assange had pretty well sunk into insignificance.
Although a comment intended for the media, it nonetheless visibly captured the attention of the dozens of government security officials filling the room to get a very candid take on the realpolitik of cyber diplomacy and strategy.
Few doubt that sheer scale of exfiltration of material by Snowden will have ramifications for years to come. But what has created equal amounts of anger and fear is that just a single person, acting alone could compromise so much highly sensitive information.
All of the Five-Eyes security agencies ( those in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States), have material reason to dread what secrets Snowden grabbed might leak out over coming months and years; not least because the lives of their staff are at risk and the security that operations depend on uncertain.
In a key speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC in April, Australia’s Attorney General and chief law officer, Senator George Brandis, didn’t mince words about the need for international intelligence gathering and sharing to continue, or the challenges that now lie ahead.
“The more intelligence I read, the more conservative I become,” Brandis confessed. “The more deeply I come to comprehend the capacity of terrorists to evade surveillance, the more I want to be assured that where our agencies are constrained, the threat to civil liberty is real and not merely theoretical.”
Noting that in Syria “Australians are taking up senior leadership roles in the conflict” Brandis, like Irvine, suggested that “the difference is the scale of the problem.”
Singling out the Snowden incident as “profoundly damaging” Brandis said there was “massive damage” from the disclosures at two levels. The first was that the airing of “intelligence content” undermined the interest of Australia and its allies. But the second and even bigger problem was the revelation about intelligence collection capability that allowed targets to change their tactics to avoid detection.
Referring to the problem of targets “going dark”, Brandis candidly admitted to “practical difficulties in obtaining information.”
“People who pose national security threats are using disclosed information to update their methods and avoid detection by our agencies. Criminals similarly use the information to avoid detection and prosecution. Capability, which can be decades in development and expect to enjoy a significant operational life expectancy, may be potentially lost overnight,” he added.
Moreover, restoring capability “after a set-back” was not simple or quick and came at “substantial cost.”
“The harms of the Snowden disclosures will continue to be felt for an unpredictable time to come,” Brandis said.
Clearly angry at the extent of potentially compromised capability and operations, Australia’s Attorney General set down a viscerally clear rejection of the notion that Snowdon’s actions were justified as whistleblowing.
Pointing to a trifecta of thresholds set down by Princeton university academic Professor Rahul Sagar, Brandis said Snowdon had been shown to have failed to pass the test on all three critical measures:
- First, a whistleblower must have clear and convincing evidence of abuse;
- Second, releasing the information must not pose a disproportionate threat to public safety;
- Third, the information leaked must be as limited in scope and scale as possible.
“Snowden is not a genuine whistleblower,” Brandis said, before hopping into both sides of politics.
“Nor, despite the best efforts of some of the gullible self-loathing Left, or the anarcho-libertarian Right, to romanticise him, is he any kind of folk hero. He is a traitor. He is a traitor because, by a cold-blooded and calculated act, he attacked [the US] by significantly damaging its capacity to defend itself from its enemies, and in doing so, he put [its] citzen’s lives at risk. And, in the course of doing so, he also compromised the national security of America’s closest allies, including Australia’s.
Hitting close to home
If the threat of home-grown terrorism, insider compromises and corruption appears abstract, few could make the notion powerfully real as the head of what used to be the Australian Customs Service (since transferred into the Australian Border Force), Michael Pezzullo.
In June 2014, a letter to Customs staff was issued, and subsequently published, that explained first-hand the governance arrangements surrounding actions against the Customs chief’s brother, Fabio Pezzullo, also employed by Customs, relating to charges against him in connection with an investigation by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity.
Put simply, the letter to staff spelled-out and cleared the air over what measures had been put in place to ensure there was no potential, perceived or real conflict of interest that may have occurred in relation to allegations and charges against the Customs chief’s brother, and his subsequent trial that resulted in a good behaviour bond.
“For obvious reasons to do with preventing any conflict of interest, or perceived conflict of interest, I have been kept at arm’s length from this matter, as chief operating officer before September 2012, as acting chief executive (September 2012 to February 2013) and as chief executive since February 2013,” Pezzullo is reported as having said in the letter.
“Successive ministers have been briefed, and arrangements were put in place when I became chief executive to ensure that I was shielded from relevant information concerning the case and would not be placed in a position of having to make any decisions regarding former officer Pezzullo, should it have ever come to that.”
What was not lost on many Customs officers was that it was Michael Pezzullo leading a big push to weed out corruption.
“Situations such as this test our resilience and resolve, but this case also demonstrates that nothing is going to derail our efforts to clean out corruption and misconduct, and put in place the strongest standards, the best values and the toughest integrity regime in the public service,” Michael Pezzullo said in his letter.
He said that “matters such as this come along in life as opportunities for the resilience and capacity of the human spirit to reveal itself” and that he was “strengthened not weakened” by the “support and humanity” of his colleagues.
“The best course for us all now is to continue with the task that we have set ourselves.”
Comment below to have your say on this story.
If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sign up to the Government News newsletter