Officers of Australia’s offshore intelligence agency, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, have fired guns while affected by alcohol, the annual report of the intelligence oversight body, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, reveals. A “serious” incident involving alcohol and a firearm with an ASIS officer and another government official occurred late last year, which the agency misled IGIS about.

The dramatic revelations come at the moment the government is urging the community to trust intelligence agencies not to misuse significantly increased law enforcement and intelligence- gathering powers. According to the IGIS report, released today, the office, led by Dr Vivienne Thom, investigated the discharge of firearms “without appropriate prior approval” between 2004 and 2013. Two incidents were discovered, including one in 2013, though “both … occurred within controlled weapons training environments”. Another three incidences of “unauthorised use” of firearms in 2013 were also investigated. The IGIS investigation found that:

“ASIS policy at the time required that a person with a blood alcohol content above zero must not be issued with or have carriage of a weapon. The inquiry found some staff misunderstanding in relation to this requirement and that ASIS did not have adequate controls in place to provide assurance that there was compliance with this requirement.”

ASIS made a series of recommendations that were implemented after the end of the 2013-14 financial year. But IGIS also reports that:

“In December 2013 a further more serious incident occurred overseas involving an allegedly inappropriate action by an officer of another Australian government agency towards an ASIS officer. A review of the incident confirmed that ASIS did not yet have adequate controls in place to provide assurance that a person with a blood alcohol content above zero would not be issued with or have carriage of a weapon. While no physical injury resulted, the incident had the potential to cause serious injury. ASIS’s investigation of the incident highlighted systemic issues.”

Remarkably, however, ASIS subsequently admitted that it had misled IGIS about gun use and alcohol:

“I was advised by the Director-General of ASIS that the investigation also revealed that there were inaccuracies in the information provided to me during the course of my 2013 inquiry. My review of the ASIS investigation report and interviews indicated other substantial discrepancies.”

The firearms incident illustrates the lack of effective powers of IGIS and its inability to offer genuinely independent oversight of Australia’s intelligence agencies: there is effectively no sanction for agencies or officers misleading, or failing to provide complete information to, IGIS: the IGIS Act only provides for a modest fine if someone refuses to be sworn to give evidence to IGIS, or refuses to answer a question once sworn. There will thus be no sanctions or embarrassment for ASIS despite the “substantial discrepancy” (a loaded term that, in bureaucracy-speak, conveys deep dissatisfaction) between what the secret agency gave to its purported monitoring body, and the truth.

Yet this is the body that the government wants Australians to believe will provide sufficient oversight of the ever-increasing powers of intelligence agencies against the rights of citizens.

Peter Fray

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