Peter Dutton home affairs national security
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton

There is significant concern within the intelligence community about a “power grab” by Home Affairs as the leadership of that portfolio again ramps up efforts to co-opt the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) into their control.

In an remarkable and blatant display of power, a clutch of security officials have renewed a controversial push to bring the military intelligence arm partly under the control of Home Affairs and give it unprecedented new powers to spy on civilian Australians and attack their computer networks. Peter Dutton yesterday backed the changes, demanding a “sensible discussion” about enabling the ASD to target Australians.

The bid was the subject of an investigation into News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst after she revealed the ploy last year, with a high-profile, hours-long raid on the journalist’s Canberra home a fortnight ago intended to intimidate both journalists and whistleblowers who might embarrass security officials. Now, in a clear demonstration that how leaks that favour the government are never pursued, a Nine national security roundsman appears to have been used as the vehicle to make the case for changes that may go even further than those revealed by Smethurst.

Despite journalistic spin that the changes would not amount to the ASD using its military intelligence capacity to spy on Australians, the proposal would include the ASD not merely advising corporations on cybersecurity but being allowed full access to their IT systems in order to “protect” them. The result would be the ASD having unfettered access to vast amounts of private information about the consumers and businesses that use that corporation’s servers — all under the guise of protecting the community from cybersecurity threats.

The traditional secrecy surrounding both national security activities and cybersecurity likely means Australians would not know which corporations were giving the ASD access to their personal and business information — and anyone who revealed them would likely be jailed.

Even though the ASD is a military agency, it undertakes extensive commercial espionage for the benefit of Australian and US corporations, even passing on legally privileged information to US companies that stand to benefit from trade negotiations with Australia’s regional partners. Obtaining authorised access to the systems of large Australian corporations would provide a treasure trove of commercial as well as private data that the ASD could pass on to its Five Eyes counterparts.

However, the aspect of the proposal ringing alarm bells within the intelligence community is that it will require the ASD to “closely coordinate” with Home Affairs. This is seen as cover for the ASD being forced to surrender part-control of its operations to empire-builders in Home Affairs — a de facto co-option of military intelligence by one section of domestic security establishment, with Home Affairs directing the ASD about how it can “coordinate” with domestic security operations — including, potentially, raids on journalists and whistleblowers.

Indeed there is already a widely held view within the intelligence community that it is inappropriate for the Australian Federal Police to be located within the portfolio. That creates problems when the AFP decides which national security leaks are investigated and which are not.

Most recently, after raiding Smethurst for a leak that embarrassed Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo and Defence secretary Greg Moriarty, the AFP decided not to investigate a far more damaging leak of intelligence advice by the government itself to a friendly journalist at The Australian that served its political purposes in relation to the medevac bill. The AFP has a very long history of inventing reasons not to investigate leaks that serve the interests of governments, no matter the damage they do. 

The absence of director-general of the Office of National Intelligence Nick Warner from the debate is also a concern. Warner is the former head of ASIS best known for his misjudgment in joining Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte in the latter’s trademark hand gesture. Warner has been invisible since his appointment as director-general despite the high-profile intelligence and security issues and continuing cybersecurity failures hitting major government and private Australian institutions. 

De facto leadership of the intelligence community appears to have been surrendered to Home Affairs as its leadership tries to override any opposition to its continued expansion.