National

Intelligence agency complaints increased by a third

The number of complaints concerning Australia's intelligence agencies increased by 34 per cent during the 2013-14 financial year with the majority of objections focused on ASIO assessments of visa applications.

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security received 504 complaints regarding intelligence agencies during 2013-14. 

487 of those complaints related to visa assessments, although more time was spent dealing with complaints of misconduct or security breaches.  

According to the IGIS annual report, the 504 complaints was a 34 per cent increase on the 375 registered during 2012/13 and a 14 per cent increase on the 439 received a year earlier.   

The Inspector-General Dr Vivienne Thom, said "no readily discernible factors drove the increase of visa-related security assessment complaints to my office" and stressed the year-on-year increase was not regarded as a cause for undue concern.

"Visa-related security assessment complaints have consistently represented 96–98 per cent of all complaints made to IGIS since 2011/12," she said.

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The majority of visa complaints were lodged by individuals seeking skilled business and work visas (67 per cent) followed by family visas (20.8 per cent) and irregular maritime arrivals (9.5 per cent).  

Only 12 complaints were registered from those seeking humanitarian or refugee visas.

Dr Thom said her team had increased their focus on ASIO's handling of security assessments because of the "significant impact this can have on individuals".

"This increased focus was achieved through obtaining direct access to ASIO's systems as well as increased liaison with other government stakeholders including Immigration and the Commonwealth Ombudsman," she said.

Dr Thom said her office spent the majority of their time dealing with complaints of misconduct or security breaches despite up to 98 per cent of complaints protesting visa decisions.  

"This is because visa-related security assessments are predominantly focused on issues of timeliness, while other complaints to our office can and do cover the full range of agency activities which may require more extensive investigation," she said.

The grievances of current and former staff accounted for seven complaints registered with IGIS with five concerning ASIO staff and two from ASIS.

"Complaint issues included the impending loss of a security clearance and consequent loss of employment, workplace culture, and failure to meet contractual obligations," Dr Thom said. 

Six complaints regarded the conduct of intelligence agencies affecting their employment in sensitive roles outside the intelligence agencies.

"Four of these concerned ASIO delay in finalising security assessments for Aviation Security Identification Cards or Maritime Security Identification Cards," Dr Thom said.

The Inspector-General's office was contacted by more than 200 people seeking advice or expressing concerns which were considered outside IGIS jurisdiction or lacking credibility.  

"This is similar to the number of individuals who contacted our office in the previous two reporting periods," Dr Thom said.

"No obvious trends are discernible from this data other than that a number of individuals continue to seek reassurance that they are not being targeted by the intelligence community."

In 2013-14, IGIS continued with inquiries into the attendance of legal representatives at ASIO interviews, the use of weapons and self-defence techniques in ASIS, and the handling of an Egyptian asylum seeker who "presented complex security issues".

In early October, the Inspector-General launched a recruitment drive the strengthen her office's ability to oversee a raft of new powers granted to the Australian intelligence community after amendments to national security legislation.

In a submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in August, Dr Thom said the proposed amendments were significant and "would increase the scope and complexity of oversight arrangements and the workload of the OIGIS".

Dr Thom told the inquiry any changes that would allow ASIO employees and ASIO affiliates to use surveillance devices without a warrant in a range of circumstances would require additional oversight from the IGIS.

"There are no reporting requirements associated with such surveillance meaning oversight will be particularly important," she said.

The current recruitment drive, which closes on October 24, seeks to hire up to five new staff on an ongoing or non-going basis with payment ranging from $70,000 to $133,967.