'Seriously damaging': ASIO says advice on border security was misrepresented
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'Seriously damaging': ASIO says advice on border security was misrepresented

The head of Australia's chief intelligence organisation has intervened in the high stakes political stoush over border security and says his agency's classified advice on the medical evacuations bill has been misrepresented.

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation boss Duncan Lewis repudiated a front page report in The Australian - relied on by the government as evidence the bill would undermine border security - accusing the newspaper of misrepresenting ASIO advice.

Director-general of security Duncan Lewis said ASIO's advice had been misrepresented.

Director-general of security Duncan Lewis said ASIO's advice had been misrepresented.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

He said the agency's advice was confined to the bill's invocation of the ASIO Act, rather than more general advice about the border security implications of the proposal.

"The advice that ASIO gave was not what was represented on the front page of The Australian newspaper," Mr Lewis told a Senate inquiry.

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The February 7 report was headlined "Phelps bill a security risk: ASIO" and revealed that a classified Department of Home Affairs briefing - based on advice from ASIO and other agencies - had warned the Christmas Island detention centre would need to reopen and that the people smuggling trade could restart.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said on radio that morning that: "The agencies have told [Labor leader Bill Shorten] that this bill would be a disaster and it would restart the boats."

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton accused Labor leader Bill Shorten of ignoring advice from security agencies.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton accused Labor leader Bill Shorten of ignoring advice from security agencies.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

But a defiant Mr Lewis told a Senate estimates hearing on Monday: "The advice that ASIO gave in this particular case was confined to the application of the ASIO Act.

"When reporting wrongly attributes advice from ASIO, or where our classified advice is leaked, it undermines all that we stand for. Breakdowns in these controls are seriously damaging."

Mr Lewis said ASIO provided legal advice as well as advice related to the time frame required to conduct security checks under the ASIO Act. He said 24 hours - the period originally given to the minister to reject a medical transfer on security grounds under the bill - was too short.

"It can take a considerable amount of time," Mr Lewis said. "There will obviously be limitations on how fast we can respond.

"The speed of the response would depend entirely on the information that we might already have on the individual ... it can take months."

Labor later amended the bill to give the minister up to 72 hours to reject a transfer on security grounds. Mr Lewis did not express an opinion on that time frame.

Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo has referred the leak of classified information to the Australian Federal Police, which is now conducting an investigation.

Mr Lewis said he had satisfied himself that no one from his agency was involved in the leak.

"ASIO does not and will not use its position to influence the national debate on security-relevant issues through unauthorised disclosures," he told the hearing.

"I have the greatest confidence that ASIO officers work with integrity and do not leak information to third parties as has been repeatedly implied in the media."

Last week Mr Dutton said nobody from his office was the source of the leak.

Mr Pezzullo defended The Australian's report and praised its author, national affairs editor Simon Benson, as a "senior and distinguished" reporter.

He said despite the headline, the article made it "transparently apparent that the advice was from the Department of Home Affairs, which drew on, in part, advice from ASIO".

Mr Pezzullo said one factor in his decision to refer the story to police was that the article "put ASIO in the spotlight of, if you like, a legislative argument".

Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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