Minister for Defence Stephen Smith has provided an update on actions taken by the Government and the Department of Defence to rectify concerns over security clearance vetting practices in Defence.
On 16 May 2011, three contractors formerly employed at the Defence Security Authority’s vetting centre in Brisbanemade allegations on the ABC Lateline program concerning inappropriate security vetting practices.
The vetting centre is part of the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency which has provided security vetting for the majority of Commonwealth agencies since October 2010.
Allegations about poor security processes were first raised in passing in the course of an investigation into harassment and bullying allegations which commenced on 23 June 2010 and concluded on 1 September 2010. Regrettably, these concerns were not followed up by the Defence Security Authority.
The Government has taken this matter very seriously since the allegations were brought to its attention on 16 May.
On 17 May, the Minister for Defence asked the Inspector-General of Defence to undertake an initial assessment to determine whether the matter should be referred for external review.
Based on this initial assessment, on 27 May, the Minister for Defence recommended to the Prime Minister that she refer the allegations to the independent Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security for thorough investigation.
The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security’s investigation commenced in June and her report is expected to be finalised by the end of October.
In response to requests from the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security for information to support her inquiry, the Department of Defence’s Chief Security Officer has undertaken his own assessment of management practices used in the vetting centre.
This assessment concentrates on the period after May 2009. In May 2009 Defence established an electronic link with ASIO to facilitate the transfer of data related to personnel security assessments between these agencies.
The Chief Security Officer’s review found:
- Inappropriate work practices were in place at the vetting centre. This relates to the use of ‘work-arounds’ to manage difficulties uploading data onto the new electronic link between Defence and ASIO. These ‘work-arounds’ involved vetting staff entering into electronic vetting forms phrases or words to identify unclear or missing information when a security clearance applicant had not provided all of the required information.
- Documentation and management arrangements in place at the centre were inadequate and did not effectively record the ‘work-arounds’.
- Almost none of the ‘work-arounds’ had been discussed between Defence and ASIO
These findings raise serious concerns around the management of security vetting within the Defence Security Agency.
However, it is important to note Defence advice that it is unlikely that security has been compromised as a result of these practices. Importantly, there are a variety of checks undertaken before a security clearance is granted, especially for high-level clearances.
In the meantime, steps have been taken to address this situation.
Vetting centre staff have been formally directed to stop using all ‘work-arounds’ unless formally agreed with ASIO. If data transfer difficulties arise with the electronic system, procedures formally agreed with ASIO will be used to address any data problems.
Defence is working with ASIO to review clearances and applications identified as being affected by the use of ‘work-arounds’. Where Defence identifies missing or inaccurate information relevant to the ASIO assessment of an individual, the correct information will be provided to ASIO.
A review team including security officials and audit staff will conduct targeted checks to provide additional surety around the operations of the vetting centre since May 2009.
Defence has established an independent team to review all current documentation and management processes to ensure the integrity of security clearance practices.
Work completed since the allegations were raised in May 2011 has already resulted in better documented and managed vetting processes and a number of information technology upgrades addressing the technical issues have also been completed.
The Government will ensure that the Department of Defence adequately addresses the issues identified by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security once her Inquiry is complete and the Government has considered it.
In addition, Department of Defence officials have written to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to add to evidence provided in relation to this mater at the Senate Budget Estimates hearings on 30 May to update members of the Committee well in advance of the next Senate Estimates in October.