TRANSCRIPT: Interview with Ali Moore - Lateline
TRANSCRIPTION: Proof copy E & OE
DATE: 20 September 2011
TOPICS: Defence Security Authority.
ALI MOORE: The Defence Minister Stephen Smith joined us a short time ago from Canberra to discuss that internal review into the Defence Security Authority's vetting processes. Minister, thanks for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
ALI MOORE: Running parallel with the Inspector General's review has been an internal department review. I understand that's now concluded. What did it find?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it found a series of serious mal-administrations such that the department has now reported to me and senior officials have also written to the Senate Estimates committee adding to the evidence they gave at Senate Estimates in May of this year. And I think that's appropriate, that was their recommendation to me and very appropriate.
So what we're now focusing on - and of course we will wait until we get the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security's report - but what we're now focusing on is remediating the difficulties that we found in the procedures, but also starting the very important task of going through the security assessments that have been adversely affected by these processed deficiencies to make sure that there's been no substantive error; in other words, that no-one has been granted a security clearance who would otherwise not have been granted a clearance.
ALI MOORE: Have any security checks been re-checked at this point?
STEPHEN SMITH: We're starting that process now. Now, I think there are two important points.
The first important point is that Defence, the Defence Security Authority, the Government has to respond methodically and assiduously and carefully to the process deficiencies that have been drawn to attention and we need to be transparent about that, which is why, for example, this evening I've provided the relevant update to the Senate Estimates committee to Senator Johnson who was involved in the Senate Estimates process, was also the shadow minister.
ALI MOORE: But surely, Minister, the key right now is how many potentially compromised security clearances do you believe there are?
STEPHEN SMITH: That's where I'm now going to. So we've got to make sure we fix those process deficiencies and that is in hand. But secondly, we now have to go through the painstaking process of checking, effectively individually, all of these security assessments that were subject to these adverse procedures.
Now, the Inspector General of Defence, as part of the very early work in this, essentially did a sample or an audit of some of the security assessments that were done. The advice I have is that there is a low risk or a low possibility that in the end we've ended up with an adverse outcome.
In other words, that someone's been granted a security clearance when they otherwise would not have been. Now that is not something that either Defence or ASIO or the Government can take for chance and that is why we're now going through that assiduous and painstaking process. That'll take some time.
ALI MOORE: And how many potentially, because our whistleblower said thousands?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think it'll certainly be hundreds and almost certainly be thousands. Now, I don't want to put out a figure to alarm people, but as a general rule of thumb, the security vetting will see in any year somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 security assessments done. So we're not talking about every assessment that was done; we're talking about those which were potentially adversely affected by these deficiencies in procedures.
But it's important to understand that the errors that were made were essentially errors at the beginning of the data entry process and there are very many layers to the security assessment. So my advice is that it's a low probability.
ALI MOORE: The whistleblowers would argue that in fact the very beginning of the process is almost the most important. If you don't have a track record of travel, for example, previous home addresses, previous employment, in one case even date of birth, how can you be sure?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well what needs to be understood here is what the so-called workarounds were.
As people were entering data and going from paper entry to computer entry, making the transition from an internal Defence arrangement to an arrangement which had cross-government contact including with ASIO.
When the data was entered, if there was a deficiency in the data, that may have been a date of birth of a relative or it may have been a relative's place of address. If that wasn't known, there were agreed procedures to enter data-
ALI MOORE: Well they were made up, weren't they? They were basically made up.
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes - yes, that's right. So a date-of-birth entry was one 1st January, 1900. That did two things; it enabled the paper process to continue, but also it flagged for future reference that a date-of-birth entry of January 1st, 1900 was an illusory entry and therefore had to be rechecked and correct data [indistinct].
ALI MOORE: But you're not suggesting workarounds are appropriate, are you?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, and workarounds have now stopped. And part of the difficulty was that the understanding of senior officers was that the so-called workarounds had been agreed between Defence and ASIO.
It's now clear on the advice I have, which has been provided to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, that there was one agreement between ASIO and Defence so far as workarounds were concerned, but one only, and so this process was not formally signed off or documented between Defence and ASIO. So the workarounds have now finished unless and except if such a workaround has been expressly agreed between Defence and ASIO and it is documented accordingly.
ALI MOORE: If I can just clarify, with the hundreds, potentially thousands of checks that you're going to have to go and recheck, do they include private security guards who have been checked for clearance to work on military bases?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well two things. Firstly, we are going to painstakingly go through any security assessment that may have been adversely affected by these deficiencies in data entry or procedure - firstly.
Secondly, I've previously seen the suggestion that security guards at some of our bases may be caught up in this. Now two points. Firstly, I've got no advice or evidence to that effect, but that doesn't mean that that won't be part of the painstaking checking that we do. We obviously want to ensure not just our security vetting at the highest level, whether that's a positive security vetting for members of the intelligence community, or doing important work in the guarding of a base.
Whatever level it is, we want to make sure that nothing has been subject to an adverse outcome where someone's been granted a security clearance when they shouldn't have.
ALI MOORE: Minister, you've been very big on putting focus and indeed an entire review on Defence accountability. I understand that Stephen Merchant, the Deputy Secretary for Intelligence and Security and Defence, who indeed referred to workarounds in those Senate Estimates hearings, I understand he's announced he's leaving his job. Was he told to leave?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well that's - I don't have that advice. I met with the Deputy Secretary for Intelligence and Security today. He's also the Acting Secretary in the absence of the new Secretary overseas following AUSMIN. But I've been working closely with Mr Merchant on this matter and I've not seen-
ALI MOORE: But will someone be held accountable? Will someone be held responsible?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well let me make two points. Firstly, I have absolute and complete confidence in Mr Merchant to go through the painstaking process that we're currently going through to make sure that any laxity in procedures are fixed, but also to be transparent to the Senate Estimates committee.
And Mr Merchant, on his own request and advice to me, said that he wanted to update the Senate committee on the information that had now come to hand. And certainly, I've had no discussion with Mr Merchant about his intention or any suggestion that he would leave Defence. He's the Acting Secretary and he seems to me to be very comfortable and keen to continue his work. But I've got absolute confidence in him to make sure that we put in place procedures which are robust and which work.
So far as accountability's concerned, I obviously want to wait until I receive the report from the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, consider that and then move forward.
ALI MOORE: At the same time, we're talking about serious mal-administration; at this point, a remedial process that is only just getting underway, checks which are only just starting. How worried should the Australian public be?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well let's put it in its context. This matter came to public attention on your program in the middle of May. The next day I asked the Inspector General to do a quick assessment, and before the end of May I'd asked through the Prime Minister, the Inspector General, the independent impartial, Inspector General of Intelligence and Security to do an external review.
Since then, Defence have put through its Chief Security Officer advice, report and evidence to the Inspector General, and as a result of that, it's clear to Defence officials that we have more problems than those which were originally envisaged and that's why they and I want to be transparent about it.
I've reported to the National Security Committee meeting this evening. I've provided the relevant information to the Shadow Minister for Defence.
Yes, we want to make sure that procedures are better than the ones which have come to attention, but we also need to ensure that there has been no adverse national security outcome.
What do I mean by that? That no-one has been granted a clearance who would otherwise not have been granted, and the advice I have is that is unlikely, but we're not going to leave that to chance; nor should we.
ALI MOORE: Indeed. We are out of time, but I have to ask you: the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security report that we're still waiting for, will it be made public?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the report is to the Prime Minister because the Inspector General reports to the Prime Minister, so that'll be, in the event, a matter for the Prime Minister.
My starting point would be that subject to redactions that might go to security or operational matters, my starting point would be that given we want to be transparent about this, that that would be my aspiration, but time will tell. Certainly that report, that external report will be a very valuable piece of work for us.
ALI MOORE: Minister, I know you've got to get back to the House. Many thanks for joining us tonight.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.