National

Australia's bungling spies dialled wrong numbers and bugged wrong phones

Australia's secret intelligence organisations made a string of bungles during the past financial year, according to the annual report by their watchdog.

In one case, the domestic spy agency ASIO bugged the wrong phone, while other officers risked penalties for impersonating Commonwealth officers when trying to give themselves so-called "light-cover" stories to hide their real jobs.

ASIO agents handed out the wrong phone number to the targets of search warrants executed on numerous homes across Sydney last year.

In separate incidents, Australia's foreign spy agency, ASIS, sent private information about Australian citizens to foreign intelligence organisations without permission. It also spied on Australians without ministerial authorisation, had officers fire weapons they were not authorised to do and was chided about official record keeping.

The report is the only view the public usually gets inside the secretive agencies known collectively as the Australian Intelligence Community unless there is a specific inquiry.

The annual snapshot was delivered by the new Inspector of Intelligence and Security, Margaret Stone, a former Federal Court judge. Ms Stone has replaced Dr Vivienne Thom, who has finished her five-year contact.

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It shows that there were 496 complaints received across the agencies. Of those, 473 were about delays in visa-related security assessments by ASIO. The number was down slightly on the 2013-2014, when there were 504 complaints, of which 487 were related to visa-related security assessments.

Reviewing the highlights of the year, the report said the IGIS had designed and implemented new oversight programs as a result of the federal government's national security legislative reform program, which has given the intelligence agencies new powers.

"The changes required a re-prioritisation of our work program and a comprehensive revision of existing inspection methodology to focus on the use of the new powers and higher risk activities," the report said.

Dr Thom spoke at the International Intelligence Review Agency Conference in London in 2014 about how oversight regimes needed to be more transparent to enhance public credibility.

The annual report said that many agencies had since moved to develop outwardly-focused media strategies and explore ways of informing the public about their work. However, "the challenge of ensuring that oversight is transparent continues in Australia'', the report said.

The report revealed a target of an ASIO entry and search warrant had complained that ASIO had given the household the wrong phone number and after an investigation ASIO confirmed that an "incorrect phone number was inadvertently given to individuals at all the Sydney addresses where search warrants were executed on that date". ASIO later corrected the error.

ASIO also bugged the wrong phone line during an exercise but realised the error after seven minutes. The report found no communications were intercepted or recorded and ASIO has established more stringent procedures and advice for staff to stop any future errors.

A major inquiry into its sister agency ASIS found it had sent intelligence information to foreign spy agencies without permission and without the application of privacy rules on seven separate occasions. It was also found to have spied on two Australians without the required ministerial authorisation.

There was also a deficiency in training for ASIS officers regarding firing of weapons in training without approvals.

"A very significant number of ASIS officers had fired weapons they were not authorised for, either once or on several occasions … indicating a widespread lack of understanding about the legal requirements."

The report said that ASIS senior management had accepted a raft of recommendations and "demonstrated a strong commitment to reform".

An inspection report into the so-called "light cover" used by ASIO and ASIS officers to conceal their employment identified four areas of potential concern: risk of penalties for impersonating a Commonwealth officer when using an alternative government department as their cover; court appearances; dealing with police; and obtaining private insurance policies.

Since the report ASIO has finalised its light-cover policy and both ASIO and ASIS have "sought to identify suitable life insurance options for their staff".

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