Politics in Kicks meets Director General of ASIO, David Irvine


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Pictured: Your Fair Author and Director General of ASIO, David Irvine

When: 6pm, March 4th
Where: St George’s College, UWA
Who: Director General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation [ASIO], David Irvine
What: Speaking on “Intelligence and National Security in the Democratic State”

**NB: This special event, hosted by the Australian Institute of International Affairs WA was held under Chatham House Rule**

**I took extensive notes throughout his talk, this blog entry is based on them.**

I didn’t know much about ASIO, ASIS, or Secret Services until I attended this talk and had the privilege of meeting David afterwards.

This is what I learned…..

David Irvine only gives three public speeches a year, and he is one of two people publicly identified as working for ASIO. He has worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service [ASIS] and now as the Head of ASIO; he described himself as “[a] ‘Spymaster’ , minus the Aston Martin [!]

“An Australian Secret Service PIK? I didn’t know we had one!”

Yes, we do — ASIS and ASIO.
The reason why we don’t hear about them in the nightly news is because they non-transparent security agencies.
We can read about share prices, projects and leadership change for companies like the Commonwealth Bank, Woodside, Fortescue, BHP, Apple or Facebook in the paper or on the net – that is transparency. Only two people are publicly acknowledged as working for ASIO – the Director General and Inspector General. Nothing else.

1. What is the function of a non-transparent security agency in a Democracy?
2. Why do we have a secret service with special powers of intrusion?
3. How do we regulate a secret service within the law and the rights of citizens?

These were some of the questions posed early by David in relation to his speaking topic. Extremely valid questions in the wake of particular events involving Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and information sharing between Private Organisations and Governments.

1. ASIO, as a Counter Espionage organisation, their powers extend into the following areas: Australian territorial and border protection, foreign interference in Australian political processes and Defence systems, prevent theft of State secrets. There is no short and sweet answer for this question regarding the function of ASIO that I can provide, so I went to their website and found a couple of quotes:

Our main responsibility is collecting, analysing and reporting intelligence on threats to security ….We also provide security assessments and protective security advice.”

2. Why does ASIO exist? Why do secret services exist? Do we not trust each other? — all ran through my mind. When I previously though of secret services, I thought they existed to react [or be reactive] – and yes, reaction to threats is part of their process of analysis, they provide ‘advice’ . However, they also have a proactive role in securing confidential information for the Government and citizens – preventing sabotage.

Politically motivated violence is another facet of ASIO’s work. Australia is every bit the “lucky country” to not have had a mass casualty attack on Australian soil. ASIO investigates possible attacks and/or the planning of attacks. Violence is not an obligation for anyone. Lawful protest is not ASIO’s business.

David revealed that in the last decade [2004 -2014], ASIO, through working with State and Federal Police have actively prevented four mass casualty attacks on Australian Soil.

That answers any question as to the function and relevance of ASIO in Australia I had.

As for these questions “Why does ASIO exist? Why do secret services exist? Do we not trust each other?” — the very same questions could be asked of nuclear weapons, or even military forces. Food for thought!

3. ASIO operates within Australian law – they have extra powers to question people to gain intelligence, and “under limited circumstances”, to detain people.

ASIO operates under 3 main principles –

  • Adequate Statute – ASIO is governed by law and deals with matters realting to security, they must comply with Australian law, they must not intrude into the privacy of citizens except in the case of “national” security. Now that last phrase is worded broadly, but what it would be interpreted to mean from David’s position is that an intrusion into the privacy of a citizen is not done without surety or intention, it could be considered a necessary course of action – proactive or reactive – as part of, or succeeding, a threat analysis. Strict processes and method.
  • Proportionality – through analysis, the level of a threat will determine the level of intrusion, a.k.a. it will be proportionate.
  • Accountability – ASIO are resposible to elected and executive Governments, subject to Audits, required to appear before Committees [Audit, Senate Estimates, and Joint Parliamentary, Royal Commissions]. They present reports to Parliament in a non-classified form, and report to the Government in a classified form. The Inspector General has an ongoing position, with the powers of a standing Royal Commission, to ensure ASIO’s legal and proportional adherence to their guidelines [Australian Law]. Because ASIO operate under the law, their decisions are appellable within the law.Busted

So ASIO actually do operate within Australian law. All their powers come from legislation.
So just because they are a “secret” service, doesn’t make their actions or operations illegal. They have strict guidelines and processes like any other organisation. Every one’s line of work is different, some deal in resources, some in clothes, others in secrets.

A question remains, for some…

“Why have these laws and “extra powers”, PIK? Why have ASIO in the first place?”

David addressed questions very similar with a clean, unfaltering response:

“…why do you have airbags in your car?”

Professional, amicable and with a very sharp wit. Thank you, Mr Irvine!

Hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing,

Tweet and Facebook me your thoughts!

- PIK

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