Choosing the right time in a new romance to reveal you're a secret agent can be tricky. But now a former Canberra ASIO operative says he was sacked for getting the timing wrong.
It is a tale of love, counter-espionage and workplace rights that looks set for a showdown in the Federal Court as the ex-secret agent battles to get his job back.
The man has warned that thousands of ASIO employees remain unaware they have been stripped by legislative changes of some of their appeal rights in workplace disputes, leaving them out in the cold if they lose their jobs.
ASIO rejects its former agent's claims, saying anyone sacked by the agency has several avenues of appeal and will be treated with procedural fairness.
The former agent, who cannot be identified because of ASIO's extreme official secrecy provisions, was four years into his career at the agency in 2011 when he met and fell in love with a woman from overseas.
When he became aware the woman, who is now his wife, was lodging in Canberra with her nation's military attache, he made a ''contact report'' to his superiors, according to ASIO rules.
But when it became clear the foreign diplomat had discovered the agent's identity as an operative, ASIO bosses began the process for revoking their man's ''top secret positive vetting'', accusing him of breaching the ''protective security framework policy'' by revealing his secret job too early in the romance.
Despite the operative's insistence he and his fiancee had done nothing wrong, he was told his top-secret status, without which he could not work at ASIO, was to be withdrawn. He was sacked in late 2011.
An appeal to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, who can examine procedures but not the merits of the case, found ASIO's procedures were sound. An unfair dismissal claim to Fair Work Australia was knocked out by a challenge by the Australian government solicitor, who successfully argued the sacked operative had failed to lodge his claim within the mandated 14 days of his dismissal.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal told him the ASIO Act prevented it from hearing his case, which the former operative blames on legislative changes from 2011 which remain mostly unknown to his colleagues.
''I've tried everything: the Director-General of Security Services, the Attorney-General's Department, the Prime Minister's Department, even the Federal Police,'' the man said.
''So they [ASIO] can say what they like, it can't be reviewed, and the only thing that's left for me to do now is to sue them in a court.''
His legal advice is that breach-of-contract action in the Federal Court is possible. He is at present wrangling with his former bosses to release employment documents which are, of course, top secret.
The agency would not comment on the man's case but was dismissive of the idea that appeal rights for its operatives were limited.
''An ASIO staff member can seek review from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security in respect of all staffing matters,'' a spokesman said.
''A staff member may also be able to take action in the Fair Work Commission, the Australian Human Rights Commission and via judicial review.
''The amendments to the ASIO Act 1979 in 2011 did not affect the appeal rights of ASIO staff.''