George Brandis securing Paul O’Sullivan as his chief of staff — an appointment announced yesterday — is a coup for Brandis and for the government. It has been a long time since such a prominent figure accepted a political staffing role outside the Prime Minister’s Office — where O’Sullivan served John Howard prior to his appointment to head ASIO in 2005.

O’Sullivan (not to be confused with the Optus executive of the same name) is from a foreign affairs background, having held a variety of posts including deputy chief of mission in Washington DC; in 1999 he was appointed ambassador to Germany, and from 2009-12 he was high commissioner to Wellington.

But O’Sullivan has attracted attention for other reasons as well. He played a role in the Australian Wheat Board scandal when the company’s managing director Andrew Lindberg claimed O’Sullivan, then Howard’s foreign affairs adviser, had told him in relation to Paul Volcker’s United Nations investigation into the oil-for-food program to “keep your response narrow, technical, do not blame the US, complain about the process”.

Once he moved to ASIO, O’Sullivan was left to clean up the mess left by the organisation’s over-enthusiastic embrace of the War on Terror, compensating Sydney man Bilal Daye for a mistaken raid on his house in 2001 and the fallout from the false imprisonment and kidnapping of Izhar Ul Haque by two ASIO officers (who continue to hide behind their legislated anonymity) in 2003.

O’Sullivan’s security credentials, however, were challenged by former ASIS officer Warren Reed, who claimed O’Sullivan revealed the identity of an ASIS agent in Egypt while serving at the Australian embassy in Cairo.

Brandis said O’Sullivan’s appointment “will underline the strong national security focus which I intend to bring to the Attorney-General’s portfolio”.

It’s an interesting statement from Brandis. As Crikey‘s coverage of national security issues under the previous government has shown, Labor’s attorneys-general — Robert McClelland, Nicola Roxon and Mark Dreyfus — were in essence ciphers for their department and agencies on national security issues. It was only AGD’s own bungling of the data retention issue, for example, that derailed its push to impose a data retention regime in 2010, and it and Roxon stuffed it up again when they tried in 2012.

Crikey understands that Brandis was a moderating force on the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in relation to its inquiry into data retention, certainly compared to his colleague and predecessor as attorney-general Philip Ruddock, whose abiding contempt for Australians’ civil liberties drove his support for giving security agencies whatever they wanted.

Whether that will be in contrast to his “strong national security focus” now that he’s in government remains to be seen. One good thing about Brandis’ appointment is that, while he’s a mediocre provincial lawyer, he has an ego befitting a US Supreme Court chief justice, which may well mean he’s less inclined to reflexively follow whatever advice his department sends up to him. On national security, that can only be a good thing.