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Spooked by the expansion of ASIO

Date

PAUL MALONE

IN THE first five years of this century, terrorism and national security were at the forefront of government thinking.

The September 11 attacks - which killed more than 3000 people - and the two Bali bombings of October 2002 and October 2005 - which killed 222 people, including 92 Australians - prompted the government to ramp up security services.

This came to mind as I noted in the budget papers last week that intelligence agency funding had at long last being frozen.

In the frenzy after the attacks there was a worldwide overreaction. Airline passengers had items as trivial as nail clippers taken from their hand luggage, while the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued travel warnings to Indonesia saying that Australians should reconsider their need to go to the country. The ban was only toned down 10 days ago, changing the warning that travellers should ''reconsider their need to travel'' to one that said they should ''exercise a high degree of caution''.

I have to admit that in April 2006 I ignored the warning. Sitting on my hotel verandah at sunset on Bali's Nusa Lembongan, watching seaweed farmers gently pole their boats across the bay, I wrote a travel article questioning the DFAT warning. It was risky. Had there been another bombing or terrorist attack in the following months I would have been seen as an idiot.

But there wasn't, and the Indonesian government rightly felt that Australia was maligning its efforts to combat terrorism and harming its tourist industry.

Back in 2006, I was sceptical of DFAT's Indonesian intelligence knowledge and confident that Australians were safe in most parts of the country. It was also clear that tourist dollars were desperately needed by many Indonesians.

In the fearful environment, ASIO was allocated funds to enable it to grow like Topsy. There was money for a new headquarters and by May 2006 ASIO staff numbers had increased to 1003, as measured by the budget's average staffing level (ASL). The growth was so rapid that the organisation struggled to recruit its allocation for the year. And then it was given a further increase, designed to take its numbers up to 1800 - a staggering 80 per cent jump.

The latest figures show an ASL of 1760, which is to be maintained for 2012-13. No statistics are provided for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, but the Office of National Assessments is to get an additional seven to take it from 141 to 148.

In putting the case for a limit to ASIO's growth, I am in no way suggesting that there are no threats, or that ASIO and the other intelligence organisations cannot play a part in countering them. What is in question is whether spending so many additional dollars on such work provides sufficient information to justify the expenditure.

Last week's underpants bomb discovery shows that terrorists are continually working on new means of attack. We can never be 100 per cent secure. The ways in which attacks could be mounted are limited only by the lack of imagination and knowledge of the terrorists.

ASIO's role is to counter threats to security, including espionage, sabotage, politically motivated violence, the promotion of communal violence, attacks on Australia's defence system, acts of foreign interference and serious threats to Australia's territorial and border integrity. The budget papers say the threat posed by terrorism, and in particular Islamic jihadist terrorism, remains the most immediate and significant factor influencing the security of Australia and Australians. After several years of accelerated growth, the agency has conceded that it will need to adapt to a ''significantly tighter budgetary environment''.

I hope in ''adapting'' it can further improve its processes for assessing security clearances, particularly those for asylum seekers. In recent years ASIO and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship say they have rationalised and speeded up their processes.

But more can be done.

ASIO told the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Immigration Detention that about 80 per cent of its assessments were completed in less than a week. However, it could take many months for the other 20 per cent, which were more complex.

There is also a need for greater transparency in ASIO's processes and the creation of a tribunal to handle appeals against its decisions.

The Campaign Coordinator of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Pamela Curr, told the parliamentary committee that she knew of a man who had been issued with an adverse ASIO security assessment because of his activities in Sri Lanka. But he produced documents showing that he was not in Sri Lanka at the time. He was in a refugee camp in India.

The Parliamentary committee rightly recognised the need to keep security sources and procedures confidential. But it also accepted the overwhelming imperative to provide procedural fairness where a person's liberty was at stake.

The committee concluded that the current system did not strike an appropriate balance and recommended that ASIO legislation be amended to allow the Security Appeals Division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to review ASIO assessments of asylum seekers and refugees.

The government has promised to provide its response to the committee's report by September this year.

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