The man most responsible for protecting Australia from a terrorist attack is not your typically dour spook. David Irvine — or “Irvinsky” as Kevin Rudd calls him — holds an honours degree in Elizabethan history, is the author of two books on Javanese shadow puppetry and speaks workable Indonesian, Mandarin, French and Italian.
Those who know him describe him as perceptive, cerebral and highly respected within the intelligence community and across the political divide. Which is a relief, frankly, because as Director-General of Security, he is in charge of ASIO, one of the most powerful and secretive organisations in the country.
Irvine’s organisation has experienced a dramatic — some say alarming — transformation from a backwater into a behemoth following the September 11 attacks. ASIO’s budget has increased 535% since 2001, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and its number of staff has trebled from 618 to 1860. His officers have unprecedented powers to detain people for seven days (even if they’re not suspected of an offence), to tap phones and hack computers.
“He [Irvine] is a sensible, balanced, decent person,” a former top intelligence analyst tells The Power Index. “He’s a fit and proper person to run ASIO but I worry about the powers that ASIO has. He’s got powers that he could exercise in quite a frightening way.”
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Since Irvine took the job in May 2009, ASIO’s budget has continued to grow and its powers have been expanded — a testament to his lobbying skills, given that terrorism is no longer the hot-button issue it once was.
He’s been particularly vocal about the need to beef up Australia’s cyber-security capabilities.
In July he warned that people are being “radicalised – literally, in their lounge rooms” by “unfettered ideas and information” obtained on the internet.
His urgings played no small part in the government’s decision to draft a new cybercrime bill that makes it easier for ASIO and other agencies to monitor what Australians are up to online. When the bill becomes law later this year, ASIO will be able to order companies, including internet service providers, to preserve electronic evidence until a warrant is obtained.
Irvine scored another coup earlier this year: ASIO was granted extensive new powers to spy on Australian individuals and entities based overseas and share the information with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD).
He has also overseen the creation of a terrorism control centre, housed at ASIO HQ, which aims to break drown the historical distrust between the spooks and the cops. It is staffed by officers from ASIO, ASIS, the DSD and the Australian Federal Police.