Former ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Conservatives used to be be the biggest cheerleaders for Australia’s top national security agency, granting the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation ever more funding and invasive powers to pry into every aspect of our lives. But after failing to fall into line on the talking points on terrorism, the head of ASIO has found himself the target of right-wing ideologues.

You could just about count the number of times ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis has done media interviews or spoken publicly since he was appointed by Tony Abbott in 2014 on two hands. Today, just days after he appeared before a Senate estimates committee, Lewis gave one of his rare interviews to ABC Radio National’s Fran Kelly — AKA the program most gallery journalists, staffers and politicians listen to in the morning — to clear the air.

[What ASIO might know about you — and how to find out for sure]

Lewis had come under attack for comments he made in estimates in response to One Nation leader Pauline Hanson’s comments on the connection between refugees and terrorists. This was the exchange:

Hanson: Can you confirm that the four terrorist attacks — and the 12 foiled — that have happened on Australian soil were committed by Muslims? And if not, who?

Lewis: I did mention, Senator, in my opening remarks that, of the 12 thwarted attacks, one of those indeed involved a right-wing extremist. So the answer is no, they have not all been carried out by Muslims. But I have to stress, Senator, and this is very important: ASIO does not make its inquiries or its assessments on the basis of somebody’s religion. We are only interested in people who are exhibiting or offering violence and, to the extent that there is violent extremism — which is very frequently inspired by a warped version of Sunni Islam –that is when our interests are invoked.

Hanson: So most of these people do follow Islam and the teachings of Islam, and that is where the radicalisation — so we have had an increase of radicalisation — 

Lewis: Well, I cannot comment on how devout they are, Senator; I have no idea. Are they violent? Yes.

Hanson: Do you believe that radicalisation could be happening in our mosques? In mosques?

Lewis: I would rather not comment on that, Senator, because it actually goes to some of our operational work. But I do go back to my earlier answer: that we are not interested in religion; we are interested in whether an individual is exhibiting or practising violence.

Hanson: Correct. I understand that a lot of the problems that are happening in Australia are because of the increased belief in Islam — that is, where it is the only religion that we have in Australia where we have now had terrorist attacks and problems that are happening on our streets. And that is where we need ASIO and the police and everyone else to try and thwart these dangers that we have, and loss of life. Do you believe that the threat is being brought in, possibly, by Middle Eastern refugees that are coming out to Australia?

Lewis: I have absolutely no evidence to suggest there is a connection between refugees and terrorism.

It is the final line of that exchange that has raised the most ire. Tony Abbott, Andrew Bolt, Chris Kenny, Miranda Devine, Rowan Dean, Hanson and her One Nation colleague Malcolm Roberts have all questioned Lewis’ judgement. “He has to be kidding,” Devine opined, while complaining about Lewis highlighting that one of the 12 thwarted attacks was planned by a right-wing extremist.

“Why highlight the non-Muslim exception? The answer is 11 of 12 terrorist plots were Islamic, yet here is Lewis pandering to the left wing myth that ‘right wing extremism’ is as dangerous.”

Bolt suggested that Lewis should “tell us the truth” or shut up.

[Rundle: what we know about ASIO’s ‘deep-state’ operations]

Lewis had previously come under fire from the right-wing commentariat for suggesting that government MPs should tone down the rhetoric against Muslims because inflammatory remarks made it harder for ASIO to rely on the Muslim community in Australia for intelligence. Despite Lewis being an Abbott-era appointment, the few public comments Lewis has made have only served to anger those who would normally be supportive of Australia’s national security agencies.

Lewis weathered that controversy, but this week facing sustained criticism from conservative media, Lewis chose the ABC over the others to respond — Bolt indicated he had asked Lewis to explain himself and had been declined. He clarified his comments and said that those in Australia who were radicalising weren’t doing so because they were refugees.

“The reason they are terrorists is not because they are refugees, but because of the violent, extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam that they have adopted.”

Lewis said ASIO understood that what was pushing those people to extremism was the internet, and they were being radicalised by what they were reading or watching online.

Will it resolve the matter? Unlikely. Hanson on 2GB last night said she thought Lewis “had contempt” for her, and she said she was sick of “weak” people like Lewis, whose job pays him $600,000 a year.

Bolt’s response this morning was “so what?” and questioning why the head of ASIO hadn’t apologised to Hanson. On 2GB he said Lewis should be hauled back before the Senate to explain whether he had misled the Senate, and Hanson said she would follow it up.