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Report on Performance

ASIO annual performance statement 2018-19

I, as Director-General of Security and the accountable authority of ASIO, present the 2018–19 annual performance statements for ASIO, as required under subsection 39(1)(a) of the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 (PGPA Act). In my opinion, these statements accurately present the performance of ASIO in achieving its purpose and comply with subsection 39(2) of the PGPA Act.

Duncan Lewis
Director-General of Security

ASIO’s purpose

ASIO’s purpose [1] is to protect Australia, its people and its interests from threats to security through intelligence collection and assessment, and the provision of advice to the Australian Government, government agencies and industry. In 2018–19 we pursued this purpose through four key activities:

  • key activity 1: countering terrorism;
  • key activity 2: countering espionage, foreign interference, sabotage and malicious insiders;
  • key activity 3: countering serious threats to Australia’s border integrity; and
  • key activity 4: providing protective security advice to national security partners.

In addition, we continued to progress the enterprise transformation program commenced in July 2018, through reforms to our operating model, leadership and workforce management practices, and use of technology. The successful delivery of the transformation program will be essential to ensure ASIO continues to evolve as an organisation that can respond effectively to the challenges of a rapidly changing and uncertain security environment.

Results for 2018–19

ASIO’s Corporate Plan 2018–19 outlines measures we use to assess our performance in achieving our purpose. The following statements describe our results against the performance measures for each key activity.

In developing these statements we have drawn on internal performance reporting and an independent survey of 74 of our senior government and industry stakeholders conducted between April and June 2019.

The results address the performance criterion contained in ASIO’s Portfolio Budget Statement (PBS): ‘effective advice, reporting and services that assist the Australian Government and ASIO’s partners to manage security risks and disrupt activities that threaten Australia’s security’.

Key activity 1: countering terrorism

Performance objective

2018-19 result
Our advice informs Australian Government policy development and responses to terrorism
ACHIEVED
Source: ASIO Corporate Plan 2018–19; addresses ASIO PBS 2018–19

Support for policy and legislative development

During 2018–19, we continued to provide effective advice to support policymakers and legislators in developing their responses to terrorist attacks and terrorism-related threats.

A significant focus remained the Australian Government’s response to the threats posed by Australians who travel overseas to fight with or are supportive of terrorist organisations. Our participation in this whole-of-government response can be seen in the provision of advice and assessments, relevant to our remit, to inform Australian Government considerations of the development of the Strengthening the Citizenship Loss Provisions Bill 2018 and the Counter-Terrorism (Temporary Exclusion Orders) Bill 2019.

We also provided advice and briefings to assist policymakers and legislators in developing the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018. This included a range of case studies demonstrating the use of encryption by the subjects of counter-terrorism investigations to frustrate security and law enforcement agencies’ efforts to identify and disrupt harmful activities. We also provided advice on legislative proposals relating to compulsory questioning powers; the sharing of online violent, abhorrent material; and religious discrimination.

Security environment awareness

Our assessments of the terrorism threat environment continued to be in high demand during 2018–19 among our federal, state and territory policy, security and law enforcement partners. We published 983 intelligence and security reports on local and international counter-terrorism matters during the reporting period. Our assessments informed stakeholders on a wide range of current terrorism-related matters, including terrorist weapons and tactics, right-wing extremism in Australia, and the threat posed by ISIL and al-Qa‘ida.

We provided stakeholders with regular assessments and statistics on Australians linked to extremist groups involved in the Syria/Iraq conflict who were located overseas or had returned to Australia, to raise awareness of the threat posed by these individuals and to inform mitigation strategies. A number of whole-of-government products and processes have been informed by the statistics we have developed on foreign fighters, returnees, subjects of investigation and caseloads—including talking points, and ministerial briefings and requests.

We contributed to the security awareness of the Australia-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee (ANZCTC) through regular briefings at committee meetings. Our knowledge informed the committee’s consideration of strategic risks and consequent resourcing decisions.

Stakeholder evaluation

Stakeholders participating in our annual stakeholder survey continued to hold our advice informing counter-terrorism policy and responses in high regard, advising it played a crucial role in the development of ministerial-level decisions. They particularly noted the briefings provided by ASIO senior officers to key stakeholders, where ASIO not only explained the advice but also its likely impact and potential legal implications. Although Operation Silves—which disrupted a terrorist attack plan against aviation—occurred almost two years ago, the impact is still felt, with stakeholders noting that ASIO advice heavily informs government responses and further mitigation strategies.

Stakeholders also commended the quality of our assessments and range of analytical products, including our willingness to publish liaison reports. The threat assessments produced by the National Threat Assessment Centre (NTAC) were viewed by stakeholders—particularly those with significant overseas travel—as a valuable complement to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Smart Traveller advice. Stakeholders also commented positively on the increasing number of joint reports prepared with other agencies, which was seen as indicative of the greater collaboration between ASIO and partner agencies and our willingness to draw on the expertise of others.

Key activity 1: countering terrorism

Performance objective

2018-19 result
National security partners use our advice to disrupt and defend against terrorism
ACHIEVED
Source: ASIO Corporate Plan 2018–19; addresses ASIO PBS 2018–19

Counter-terrorism disruptions

In 2018–19 ASIO intelligence made a direct contribution to the identification and disruption of terrorism-related threats to Australians and Australian interests.

Notable disruptions informed by ASIO during the period included:

  • the arrest of three individuals in Melbourne on 20 November 2018 in relation to a possible terrorist attack. The individuals were subsequently charged with one count of other acts done in preparation for, or planning, terrorist acts under subparagraph 101.6 of the Criminal Code (Commonwealth);
  • the arrest of an individual in Melbourne on 20 June 2019 in relation to possible foreign incursions offences. The individual was charged with acts in preparation for foreign incursions contrary to subparagraph 119.4 of the Criminal Code; and
  • the arrest of three individuals in Sydney on 2 July 2019 (the culmination of an intensive covert investigation since late 2018) in relation to a range of terrorism and other offences. One of those arrested was charged with three terrorism offences, including undertaking acts in preparation for or planning terrorist acts, preparations for foreign incursions, and membership of a terrorist organisation. The terrorist activity for which these individuals were eventually charged was first uncovered by ASIO intelligence operations and referred to the federal–state Joint Counter Terrorism Team for investigation.

We supported federal–state Joint Counter Terrorism Teams in the prosecution of individuals for terrorism and related offences. This included Khaled Khayat’s 1 May 2019 conviction for conspiracy to do acts in preparation for, or planning, terrorist acts in relation to his involvement in the 2017 Sydney aviation plot. We continued to contribute support to counter-terrorism judicial proceedings—some of which resulted in convictions and sentences during the reporting period. Furthermore, ASIO intelligence contributed to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) being able to swear arrest warrants for more than a third of those Australians remaining in Syria.

During 2018–19, our assessments informed the decision-making of the Minister for Foreign Affairs in relation to the cancellation of passports of individuals linked to extremist groups in the Syria/Iraq conflict. The passports were cancelled, both to prevent travel to the Syria–Iraq region and to limit the ability of the individuals already there to move beyond the region. We also provided advice on the effectiveness of, and the security rationale for, passport cancellations in relation to the Syria/Iraq conflict.

Our advice also informed Department of Home Affairs processes in relation to the loss of citizenship (under section 35 of the Australian Citizenship Act 2007) of individuals linked to extremist groups in the Syria/Iraq conflict.

Threat mitigation measures

Our advice informed a range of national measures implemented throughout 2018–19 to mitigate the threat posed by terrorism.

  • Our advice informed the relisting of Hamas’s Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades,
    al-Shabaab, Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, and Palestinian
    Islamic Jihad as terrorist organisations under Part 5.3 of the Criminal Code.
  • We contributed legal and analytical expertise in support of high-risk terrorism offender regimes, including the Australian Government’s continuing detention order regime and the implementation by New South Wales of the Terrorism High Risk Offenders Act 2017 (NSW).
  • We continued to work with federal, state and territory partners on a multi-agency approach to the treatment of ‘residual risk’ posed by individuals of counter-terrorism interest who have been, but are not currently, under active investigation.
  • Our assessments formed an integral part of the Australian Government’s framework for managing Australians of counter-terrorism interest who either are detained offshore or express a desire to return to Australia. Our assessments were also relied on heavily by partners in developing plans to manage the return of these individuals and mitigate the risk they present on their return.
  • We have established a National Intelligence Community (NIC) Counter-Terrorism Discovery Program consisting of embedded officers from ASIO, AFP, Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC), and the Department of Home Affairs to proactively identify new threats, thereby providing assurance in relation to threats that may emerge outside existing NIC coverage.

Prioritising threats

We supported Australian and international partners’ counter-terrorism efforts by providing advice on where operational resources could be placed for greatest effect. This prioritisation advice—which includes weekly and monthly updates on investigation priorities and associated requirements—was highly valued by partners and informed their own operational priorities.

Stakeholder evaluation

Stakeholders regarded our advice and intelligence reports as valuable contributions to the effort to disrupt and defend against terrorism. In the wake of the March 2019 attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, stakeholders viewed our coverage of the extreme right wing in Australia to be effective, acknowledging that significant foundational work had occurred before the attacks.

A significant number of our stakeholders—particularly in the states and territories and in the business and tertiary education sectors—continued to regard our reports and assessments as indispensable in informing their terrorism defences. A key component of this knowledge-sharing was the dissemination work performed by the Business and Government Liaison Unit (BGLU), through its website and sectoral briefing days.

Strong praise for our counter-terrorism work was received from federal and state government and law enforcement stakeholders. They commented favourably on the manner in which we engage with our counter-terrorism partners; and a number of key stakeholders advised they believed the operational success of disruption operations was achieved mainly through our close collaboration with partner agencies. While stakeholders advised that working relationships established over a number of years were operating effectively, they noted there was no sense of complacency, with a number of initiatives in play to further enhance counter-terrorism collaboration.

Case study: disrupting politically motivated violence

Politically motivated violence (PMV) remains a threat to Australia. Since September 2014 there have been 16 major disruption operations in relation to imminent attack planning, and seven terrorist attacks targeting people in Australia. The primary terrorist threat in Australia comes from a small number of Islamist extremists who are committed to violence as part of their ideology. Although significant uncertainty exists about the future shape of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the future of the foreign fighters who joined it, we expect the legacy of ISIL and the networks it has built, in person or online, will continue to adversely affect both the global and Australian security environment for years to come.

Over the reporting period, ASIO, working as part of the Joint Counter Terrorism Teams, was instrumental in identifying, investigating and disrupting the activities of a number of Australian citizens who continued to materially support or participate in terrorism—including preventing Australians from travelling offshore to join extremist groups. While some who come to our attention require urgent investigation and immediate action, the identification, investigation and ultimate disruption of others can take months, if not years, to culminate. The following is an example.

In 2016 we began a security intelligence investigation in New South Wales into an Australia-based individual whom we assessed adhered to an Islamist extremist ideology supportive of ISIL and PMV. Through our continued investigation between 2017 and 2019, we identified the individual’s aspiration to conduct a terrorist attack in Australia, and also identified like-minded associates both in Australia and overseas. We worked closely with our law enforcement partners in relation to their criminal investigation into the individuals, and provided unique intelligence and investigative support.

The investigation culminated in the arrest on 2 July 2019 of three individuals, one of whom was charged with multiple terrorism offences, including acts in preparation for, or planning, terrorist acts.

Following the arrest, we published threat assessments to assist our partners and stakeholders—including government, policy agencies, law enforcement, and industry—in understanding the threat and the potential reactions to the law enforcement activity.

Key activity 2: countering espionage, foreign interference, sabotage and malicious insiders

Performance objective

2018-19 result
Our advice informs Australian Government policy development and responses to espionage, foreign interference, sabotage and malicious insiders
ACHIEVED
Source: ASIO Corporate Plan 2018–19; addresses ASIO PBS 2018–19

Broadening Australian Government understanding of the threat, and supporting the development and implementation of response strategies

To support policy development and inform responses to espionage, foreign interference, sabotage and malicious insiders, we published 269 intelligence and security products during the reporting period. Topics included the threats to Australian research and technology (including through technology transfer); foreign interference in the tertiary education sector; foreign intelligence interest in professional social media sites; as well as foreign intelligence service targeting of Australian Government and Defence interests and Australian Government personnel and facilities, both in Australia and abroad.

  • Our advice on the scale of the foreign intelligence threat to Australian emerging technologies informed the development of a cohesive national strategy addressing the scope of technology transfer.
  • We continued to contribute to awareness and understanding of the threat posed by cyber espionage undertaken against or through Australia, and emerging cyber espionage, by working closely with the Australian Cyber Security Centre. Specifically, we provided a unique insight into, together with the capability to understand, the intent, nature and harm of cyber enabled espionage and foreign interference activity.

Our advice and assessments during the reporting period continued to provide an important foundation for the work of the Home Affairs National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator (NCFIC). Our intelligence-led ‘knowledge base’ directly influenced the development and understanding of a whole-of-government strategy and complementary package of initiatives to counter the foreign interference threat.

A major piece of work undertaken during the reporting period was an assessment of the ways in which entities may disrupt, impair or otherwise interfere with the Australian electoral system. The assessment directly informed the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce’s recommendations on mitigating the threat to the integrity of Australia’s electoral system.

We provided highly valued advice to ministers and their offices on the threat of foreign intelligence services targeting Australian Government delegations travelling overseas, and measures to mitigate this threat. These briefings resulted in the adoption of security countermeasures that reduced the risk to privileged government information. We also provided advice to the Australian Government on covert intelligence activity in Australia’s political environment, and advice on foreign intelligence service targeting of Australian Government personnel and facilities for intelligence collection purposes.

We continued to work with policy partners to support a renewed focus on Pacific partnerships.

Mitigating threats to critical infrastructure

Our advice continued in 2018–19 to be instrumental in providing our key stakeholders in the Home Affairs Critical Infrastructure Centre (CIC), the Department of Defence, the Treasury and the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) with an understanding of threats associated with foreign ownership and control of critical infrastructure.

We provided in-depth analysis and briefings on matters such as risks arising from the aggregation of ownership in critical infrastructure, threats to the telecommunications sector and the circumvention of foreign investment scrutiny processes, to support stakeholders’ decision-making and the development of mitigation measures.

We provided advice to the CIC to inform the centre’s engagement with carriers and carriage service providers, to ensure telecommunications facilities are adequately protected from unauthorised interference. This included advice in relation to 43 Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms (TSSR) notifications. We further supported the CIC by participating in its outreach to and engagement with the telecommunications industry. We also contributed to the review of 31 carrier licence applications.

We provided 275 foreign investment assessments to the Treasury to support the FIRB’s consideration of investment proposals. Our assessments provided advice on the potential for a foreign power to conduct espionage, foreign interference or sabotage through its involvement in specific investments. We commenced support to the Department of Defence by providing foreign ownership, control and influence checks for defence industry seeking to join the Defence Industry Security Program (DISP). These checks are intended to provide a degree of greater assurance for the supply chain and support the Department of Defence’s implementation of the reformed DISP.

To build international understanding of the issues Australia is facing in the foreign investment field, we participated in working groups with international partners, and provided them with information to help develop their own recommendations.

Stakeholder evaluation

Stakeholders continued to have confidence in our contribution to counter–espionage and foreign interference policy development and responses, with advice seen as hitting the mark and being very influential. Our ability to draw on the views and experiences of overseas counterparts, especially the Five-Eyes counterpart agencies, to inform our advice was also highly valued. It was noted that, while we seemed to be managing the desire from multiple sources for advice on foreign interference, demand was expected to outstrip our current capacity.

Stakeholders noted favourably our close work with the FIRB and the CIC when providing advice to support decision-making and risk mitigation measures in relation to investments in critical infrastructure.

Key activity 2: countering espionage, foreign interference, sabotage and malicious insiders

Performance objective

2018-19 result
National security partners use our advice to disrupt and defend against harmful espionage, foreign interference, sabotage and malicious insiders
PARTIALLY ACHIEVED
Source: ASIO Corporate Plan 2018–19; addresses ASIO PBS 2018–19

Defence and defence industry support

Our work with the Department of Defence and with defence industry continued to expand during the reporting period, and to deliver outcomes to help mitigate the risk of foreign intelligence services compromising Australia’s critical defence capabilities and acquisition program.

We contributed advice in support of the Department of Defence’s review of a range of security policies, including risk assessments, the reformed DISP, and the inclusion of security considerations in acquisition decisions. We provided an assessment on foreign intelligence services targeting of Australian Defence interests including the Future Submarine Program, and briefed Defence personnel on strategies to reduce the risk of foreign intelligence services targeting them, in particular online and during overseas travel. The increase in demand for these briefings over the reporting period demonstrated that our advice was considered valuable and relevant by our Defence partners.

In relation to defence industry, we provided threat briefings and advice on espionage and foreign interference threats and mitigations to numerous Defence primes, and small to medium-sized defence industry companies, during the period. Feedback after the briefings indicates that several companies have enhanced their security procedures and policies, while others have been alerted to threats they would not previously have recognised. We also provided assistance to companies in developing security awareness programs for their staff and senior executives.

  • We continuously refine our briefings based on feedback from our partners and stakeholders, and have developed more targeted briefings for particularly vulnerable areas.
  • The interaction between our senior executives and defence industry leaders has increased, including briefings to company and corporate boards.
  • We have also worked more closely with the Department of Defence on synthesising and actioning leads generated through contact and incident reports to identify early indications of foreign intelligence service targeting.

We worked with the Department of Defence to implement a new initiative requiring mandatory membership of the BGLU website for new members of the DISP. This has improved our ability to provide unclassified advice directly to a much larger number of defence industry providers, especially small and medium enterprises we have not traditionally had contact with, while also improving our ability to contribute advice to protect the government’s Defence capability investment throughout more of the supply chain.

Personnel security assessments

Our personnel security assessments continued to play a critical role in assisting partner agencies to protect classified and sensitive government information, areas and resources.

In 2018–19, we completed 32 887 personnel security assessments, comprising 28 796 assessments for Baseline, Negative Vetting (NV) 1 and 2 clearances and 4091 Positive Vetting (PV) clearances. We completed a number of adverse and qualified personnel security assessments, containing information and recommendations on an individual’s suitability to be granted or continue to hold a clearance. As a result of these assessments, the risk to sensitive government information and/or areas was mitigated.

  • Feedback from the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency (AGSVA)—the central security vetting agency—acknowledged that the PV caseload had significantly reduced and we had succeeded, in the main, in meeting Key Performance Indicator benchmarks for PV, NV1, and NV2 security assessments. The increase in timeliness has enabled AGSVA to meet its benchmarks and has enabled sponsoring entities to onboard staff in a timely manner.
  • The contribution provided by ASIO secondees to the AGSVA—in line with the recommendations of the Independent Intelligence Review of June 2017—has reinforced the cooperation between our two agencies and enabled a greater sharing of knowledge and expertise.

Enhancing understanding of the threat

In addition to producing personnel security assessments, we provided briefings around Australia to AGSVA staff, industry vetting providers and other government agencies through the AGSVA Stakeholder Engagement Forum and Government Security Committee. These briefings were well received, with participants confirming the advice provided had assisted them to better understand the general foreign intelligence service threat environment as well as agency-specific risks, ASIO’s role in the security clearance process, and the impact of legislative change on the clearance process.

We provided assessments and advice that assisted Australian Government agencies to make intelligence-based decisions on the suitability of individuals to hold security clearances, and to mitigate insider threat risks. Our tailored protective security briefings for clearance holders have increased awareness of the threat posed by foreign intelligence services, and the security obligations of Australian Government employees while in Australia and overseas, including contact reporting.

Espionage and foreign interference legislation

We worked closely with the AFP during the reporting period, to progress implementation of the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018, including through capability building and review of espionage lead information.

We assess that passage of the espionage and foreign interference legislation has had an impact on espionage and foreign interference in Australia, and caused some foreign intelligence services to re-assess the risks associated with clandestine foreign intelligence operations conducted in or against Australia. However, we anticipate the most capable foreign intelligence services will adapt their behaviour over time to circumvent the new legislation.

‘Partially achieved’ result

Our capacity to provide our partners with advice is being outstripped by demand; hence our assessment that this result was ‘partially achieved’. Measures we have instigated to meet these challenges include providing dedicated resourcing in key regional positions, collaborating with external partners in delivering briefings and advice, engaging with industry peak bodies to capture broader industry cross-sections, and streamlining internal and external partner agency processes. Notwithstanding these measures, the significant growth in demand for our advice will continue to present a challenge for ASIO, necessitating a continued focus on the most valuable activities in collaboration with our strategic partners.

Stakeholder evaluation

Stakeholders expressed high regard for our assessments and advice on counter-espionage intelligence and investigations, believing it to be well targeted and appropriate, and, where relevant, having made a positive business impact. There was, however, a significant hunger for more assessments on this threat.

Stakeholders appreciated the increasing accessibility they had to ASIO staff as our efforts to counter espionage and foreign interference become more prominent. Compared with previous years, stakeholders were more aware and had a greater understanding of the Contact Reporting Scheme, particularly its potential value and how to access it, with a number of non-government stakeholders interested in being more engaged in the scheme.

Key activity 2: countering espionage, foreign interference, sabotage and malicious insiders

Performance objective

2018-19 result
We collect foreign intelligence in Australia that advances Australia’s national security interests
PARTIALLY ACHIEVED
Source: ASIO Corporate Plan 2018–19; addresses ASIO PBS 2018–19

Under the ASIO Act 1979, we are responsible for collecting foreign intelligence in Australia on matters relating to Australia’s national security, foreign relations or economic wellbeing. The specific outcomes achieved in this area are classified.

The ongoing high tempo of counter-terrorism and counter-espionage investigations and operations continued in 2018–19 to limit the resources available within ASIO to meet the foreign intelligence collection requirements of Australia’s foreign intelligence agencies. While the collection operations we conducted on behalf of partners during the reporting period yielded valuable and unique intelligence, the ‘partially achieved’ result acknowledges that we were unable to progress other collection operations requested by partners.

Stakeholder evaluation

The few key stakeholders we engage with in this area advised we continued to demonstrate a high level of cooperation in operations to collect foreign intelligence in Australia. In acknowledging the quality of our work—together with the significant contribution it makes to their operational success—stakeholders commented particularly favourably on our agility in planning and executing collection operations.

Case study: clearance holder in contact with a foreign intelligence service

An ASIO investigation revealed that an Australian Government clearance holder was in ongoing contact with a foreign intelligence service in Australia. We assessed this contact could allow the clearance holder’s access to sensitive classified information to be exploited. The clearance holder worked in an area of the Australian Government of interest to the foreign intelligence service.

ASIO conducted a security assessment interview of the clearance holder to determine whether they had been the unwitting subject of an intelligence cultivation. We subsequently assessed that their continued access to sensitive information allowed through a security clearance would represent an unacceptable and avoidable risk to national security from espionage and acts of foreign interference.

Our adverse security assessment recommended the clearance holder’s security clearance be revoked. This recommendation was accepted by the vetting agency, and appropriate action was taken in concert with the clearance sponsor.

Case study: preventing hostile intelligence approaches through social media

During the year, we developed advice describing how hostile intelligence services use LinkedIn and other social media platforms to target people in positions that could fulfil a wide range of intelligence objectives.

The report’s release generated awareness of this vector being used for hostile intelligence activity, led to action by stakeholders to better manage security risks, and provided some new intelligence back to ASIO.

Our advice was distributed to stakeholders across government, business and industry, including to Business and Government Liaison Unit (BGLU) subscribers. We included advice on the topic in our outreach activities, through ongoing security awareness briefings, and in specific engagements with government, defence industry, and research institutions.

Stakeholders used our advice to respond to this threat vector and improve their security awareness and systems. Their feedback on the report itself was also positive.

  • The ASIO Stakeholder Survey highlighted users, including in defence industry, identifying this report as a good example of ASIO advice directly influencing management of security risks.
  • Feedback from working-level users across stakeholder groups showed they drew on our advice to generate their own messaging and amplify awareness within their organisation using internal corporate communications channels.
  • In a small number of organisations, security teams were considering making policy changes in response to receiving our advice; for example, to limit or restrict social media access on their corporate networks.

The report also generated some new intelligence back to ASIO by prompting clearance holders to report social media approaches, based on our advice of how hostile intelligence actors craft social media approaches.

Key activity 3: countering serious threats to Australia’s border integrity

Performance objective

2018-19 result
Our advice informs Australian Government policy development and responses to serious threats to Australia’s border integrity
ACHIEVED
Source: ASIO Corporate Plan 2018–19; addresses ASIO PBS 2018–19

During the reporting period, we continued to support the development of Australian Government policy on border security. We contributed advice that informed policy and decision-making on Operation Sovereign Borders, regional processing arrangements, community cohesion initiatives, the operation of the Aviation Security Identification Card (ASIC) and Maritime Security Identification Card (MSIC) schemes, and the streamlining of the referral criteria for national security assessments of visa and citizenship applications. We also continued to contribute to a number of government coordination forums on border security issues.

Stakeholder evaluation

The Department of Home Affairs viewed ASIO as a capable partner providing a valued contribution to the effort to disrupt serious threats to Australia’s border integrity, through the identification and assessment of threats and our substantial contribution to the inter-agency process. Furthermore, the department considered our contribution to policy development to be appropriate and influential.

Key activity 3: counter serious threats to Australia’s border integrity

Performance objective

2018-19 result
National security partners use our advice to disrupt and defend against serious threats to Australia’s border integrity
ACHIEVED
Source: ASIO Corporate Plan 2018–19; addresses ASIO PBS 2018–19

Support for Operation Sovereign Borders

We continued to support Operation Sovereign Borders by investigating Australia-based links to people-smuggling ventures, contributing to contingency plans, and providing advice to the Joint Agency Task Force on the threat environment. During the reporting period, the intelligence derived from our investigations contributed directly to the operational activities of Operation Sovereign Borders member agencies. We also drew on our analytical and operational work to contribute to the intelligence requirements of the Department of Home Affairs, undertake security assessment interviews, and furnish adverse security assessments in relation to people-smuggling activities.

Visa security assessments

We provided 11 699 security assessments to the Department of Home Affairs in 2018–19 to support its decision-making on the issuing of a range of visas (see Table 1 below). These assessments included a relatively small number of adverse security assessments in relation to individuals whom we assessed to be directly or indirectly a risk to security within the meaning of section 4 of the ASIO Act. Most of the adverse security assessments were issued on counter-terrorism grounds. These assessments informed the taking of prescribed administrative action by the Department of Home Affairs to mitigate the threat posed by these individuals, including through visa refusal and cancellation, and refusal of Australian citizenship. In providing these assessments, we met all current service-level agreements with the department on visa security assessments.

Throughout the reporting period, we worked closely with the Department of Home Affairs to further refine the security assessment referral criteria in relation to national security, resulting in a decrease in the department’s referrals to ASIO for assessment across the caseloads. We contributed to the training of Home Affairs staff in the Australia-wide visa processing network to ensure the referrals made to ASIO optimally reflect those cases which could pose the greatest risk to national security. We engaged regularly with the Department of Home Affairs to ensure that systems and policies in relation to border alerts were appropriate and fit for purpose, and also provided training and advice to Home Affairs staff to facilitate appropriate resolution of border alerts.

Table 1: Visa security assessments

Type of entry 2016–17 2017–18 2018–19
Temporary visas 3782 1746 1219
Permanent residence and citizenship 2248 294 155
Onshore protection (air) 212 66 32
Offshore refugee/humanitarian 2265 919 747
Illegal maritime arrivals 546 95 40
Other referred caseloads 5305 2334 2121
Resolution of national security border alerts* 8133 7353 7385
TOTAL 22 491** 12 807** 11 699

* In previous annual reports, we have not reported the number of resolved national security border alerts; however, in recognition of the importance of this work stream, we have commenced reporting the figures for this work this year.

**In ASIO’s Annual report 2016–17, the total number of visa security assessments was 14 358; in ASIO’s Annual report 2017–18, the total number of visa security assessments was 5454. Noting, however, the decision to include the ‘resolution of national security border alerts’ work stream, we have amended the totals to allow for a comparison of like figures.

Access security assessments

In 2018–19 we provided 135 005 access security assessments to the Department of Home Affairs (AusCheck), including in relation to individuals seeking ASICs and MSICs. We also provided 10 109 access security assessments in relation to individuals seeking access to security-sensitive chemicals, biological agents or nuclear sites. No adverse or qualified access security assessments were issued during the reporting period.

Stakeholder evaluation

Stakeholders viewed ASIO’s analytical capability, advice and reporting as a valuable contribution to the effort to disrupt serious threats to Australia’s border integrity. Particular note was made of our willingness to collaborate and engage positively and productively in support of this mission. Our foreign fighter profiles continued to be viewed by stakeholders as providing an important contribution to enhancing border security, while our willingness to draw on our extensive range of liaison partners, often providing unique perspectives, was appreciated and valued.

 

Case study: furnishing of security assessments

 

The terrorism threat level in Australia remains at ‘Probable’, which means that credible intelligence, assessed to represent a plausible scenario, indicates an intention and capability on the part of terrorist groups or entities to undertake attacks here. Australia’s border integrity and security are critical elements in Australia’s defence against the terrorist threat.

In 2018–19, ASIO continued to mitigate these threats to Australia through the furnishing of security assessments to the Department of Home Affairs. For example, we investigated the case of an offshore visa applicant assessed to have previously provided logistic support to individuals affiliated with the 9/11 attacks. We assessed the individual presented an avoidable risk to Australia’s security, and issued an adverse security assessment in early 2019, resulting in refusal of the visa. This example demonstrates persons with terrorist affiliations or persons supportive of ideologies committed to politically motivated violence continue to seek to undertake travel to Australia, across a range of visa categories. Our investigations are carried out with the cooperation of our domestic and international partner networks. These partnerships are invaluable in helping to keep Australians safe.

Key activity 4: providing protective security advice to national security partners

Performance objective

2018-19 result
Our protective security advice and services assist national security partners to manage security risks
ACHIEVED
Source: ASIO Corporate Plan 2018–19; addresses ASIO PBS 2018–19

Throughout the reporting period, our protective security advice and services continued to assist federal, state and territory governments and agencies, and industry, to manage their security risks by equipping them with credible, intelligence-backed reporting, enabling them to effect positive and effective protective security regimes. As with previous years, our Business and Government Liaison Unit (BGLU) acted as a central outreach mechanism between ASIO and our government and industry stakeholders.

  • The BGLU facilitated nine government and industry briefings, including five interstate briefings. Two of these interstate briefings were specifically designed for defence industry personnel, to address the demand for our advice from this sector. Briefing sessions also targeted the health sector, the education sector, and the terrorist threat to crowded places. Attendees of six of the nine briefing days were asked to provide feedback, with 97 per cent of survey respondents advising the briefing sessions met their expectations—an increase from 92 per cent in the previous year.
  • The BGLU continued to produce and disseminate domestic and international security information through its secure website. During the reporting period, 47 ASIO reports—including seven ASIO-T4 Protective Security directorate (ASIO-T4) protective security managers guides—were disseminated through the website, and subscribers grew by nearly 30 per cent, from 3262 to 4480.

In 2018–19 we continued to develop our academic outreach program in concert with other government agencies, such as the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC). We expanded our engagement with more than 25 universities, research institutes, think tanks and supporting entities. This engagement enabled us to enhance the foreign intelligence threat awareness of executives and boards as well as key staff engaged in research of value to foreign intelligence services. During the reporting period, we also provided advice to help universities identify espionage and foreign interference risks to their people, assets, international partnering and business, including attempted and actual compromises of their infrastructure.

Physical protective security advice and services

ASIO-T4 provided high-quality, comprehensive and timely intelligence-led protective security advice and services to our national security partners throughout 2018–19. Instances of our partners using our advice and services to inform their approach to protective security include the following.

  • The ANZCTC Crowded Place Advisory Group (CPAG) Capability Adviser forum sought ASIO-T4’s expertise for input into the development of jurisdiction protective security training packages for crowded places, which focused on mitigating the risk of a terrorist attack. These courses have served to address the knowledge gap within this field by increasing the protective security awareness of general duties police and district regional managers, and increasing the capability of state and territory police protective security units to conduct vulnerability assessments of crowded places and fixed facilities.
  • We published seven new protective security manager guides, including Introduction to protective security measures and University and research institutes—sensitive area security. These guides are considered to be best-practice protective security guidance produced by the Australian Government, and they continue to improve the protective security capability across government, public sector and industry partners.
  • International partners asked to participate as observers at ASIO-T4’s ‘Introduction to Counter Terrorism Protective Security Advice’ course. This course, and the other courses run by ASIO-T4, remain oversubscribed, and feedback from attendees continued to be very positive.

Table 2: ASIO-T4 advice and services, 2017–18

  2016–17 2017–18 2018–19
Physical security certification program
Zone 5 facilities* Site inspections and reports 80 89 81
Certifications issued 39 60 40
Courier services Site inspections and reports 3 1 8
Endorsements issued 0 0 8
Security products evaluated
Security products evaluated   179 71 87
Protective security review
Protective security risk review reports 1 1 0
Communications
Publications Protective security circulars 6 6 1
Security manager guides 5 10 7
Security equipment guides 1 4 1
Technical note annex 2 0 0
Training Protective security training courses 4 4 6
Safe maintainer courses 2 2 1
SCEC**-approved locksmith briefing 1 1 1
SCEC-approved consultant briefing 1 0 2

* The Australian Government Protective Security Policy Framework mandates that all Zone 5 facilities within Australia must be certified by ASIO-T4 before becoming operational. In some cases, ASIO inspection reports recommend that facility owners introduce additional measures to achieve certification. The difference between the number of inspection reports completed (81) and certifications issued (40) reflects work underway by facility owners to implement report recommendations.

** Security Construction and Equipment Committee

Stakeholder evaluation

Stakeholders regarded ASIO-T4’s protective security advice and services—including briefings, reports and guides—highly favourably and of great use in managing security risks. The quality of ASIO-T4’s physical security advice was widely respected, and those who interacted with ASIO-T4 saw it as an authority whose advice could be relied on. ASIO-T4’s Security managers handbook: introduction to protective security measures released during March 2019 was highly regarded by many stakeholders.

Stakeholders continued to value the program of sectoral briefing days and ‘roadshows’, seeing them as a clear expression of ASIO listening to its customers and delivering high-quality briefings. Government officials particularly expressed their gratitude for frank and focused briefings provided for ministers, especially those on terrorism, espionage, foreign interference and the malicious insider threats.

Stakeholders viewed ASIO as having made significant progress in the last year in establishing effective partnerships across key industry sectors, particularly with some small and medium enterprises and key participants in the supply chain for important capabilities. ASIO engagement with stakeholders, where it occurred, was regarded highly and considered very valuable. However, stakeholders noted with some concern the size of the task—given the large number of participants in key industry sectors—and expressed interest in assisting ASIO in raising security across the entire supply chain.

ASIO-T4 case study: building national capability to protect crowded spaces

ASIO-T4’s role is to provide expert protective security advice to the Australian Government and other entities, including state and territory governments, select commercial companies, and owners and operators of national critical infrastructure. ASIO-T4 is a key contributor of protective security advice and guidance to the Australia-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee (ANZCTC).

We reported in our 2017–18 annual report that ASIO-T4 established a national police counter-terrorism protective security adviser network to share information and promote collaboration on protective security matters. To support this network, in 2018–19 ASIO-T4 developed a protective security training course focused on mitigating the risk of a terrorist attack. Federal, state and territory police supporting the work of the ANZCTC Crowded Places Advisory Group (CPAG) were prioritised for attendance on the new course, which received overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants.

Analysis of performance

ASIO’s purpose is to protect Australia, its people and its interests from threats to security by providing advice to assist the Australian Government, federal, state and territory national security partner agencies, and industry, to defend against and disrupt these threats. Our 2019 Stakeholder Survey—which sought views on our performance from 74 senior executives across government and industry sectors—found that ASIO was achieving this purpose. Our advice continues to be highly regarded and in high demand. Many respondents commented positively on our willingness to work closely with stakeholders and to expand our engagement to a wider range of stakeholders within government and industry.

We have, however, assessed that we have only ‘partially achieved’ two of the eight strategic performance objectives set out in our corporate plan for 2018–19, both of which fall within our countering espionage, foreign interference, sabotage and malicious insiders key activity (see performance objectives 2b and 2c above). While our work in these areas is highly regarded by stakeholders, the higher level of espionage and foreign interference threat facing Australia, combined with greater awareness of that threat among government and industry stakeholders, has increased demand for our advice and support, which is putting pressure on current resources.

With the terrorist threat showing no signs of significantly decreasing, ASIO has limited scope to redirect internal resources to address this steadily increasing gap between demand for our counter–espionage and foreign interference advice and our ability to inform, advise, support and assist. We will necessarily continue to prioritise our finite resources—across our counter-terrorism, counter‒espionage and foreign interference, border integrity and protective security advice programs—towards addressing activities of the greatest potential harm to Australians and Australian interests.

Report on financial performance

Financial performance

The operating environment in 2018–19 continued to be challenging, resulting in ongoing pressure on our resources and sustainability. The financial result was a deficit of $14.4 million (excluding depreciation), which represents 3 per cent of budget, compared with a small surplus of $1.0 million last financial year. The loss includes a mandatory accounting adjustment of $8.3 million for employee and make-good provisions due to interest rate movement; and the remaining $6.1 million overspend, despite measures to reduce expenditure, relates to necessary supplier costs. We have followed the appropriate government process as a result of the loss.

As part of the budget for 2018–19, ASIO received $24.4 million to assist with maintaining operating activities as well as transformation planning. Both measures will receive funding in 2019–20. In addition to this, a detailed business case for transformation will be considered as part of the 2019–20 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook process.

Our Departmental Capital Budget (DCB) funding was $85.6 million in 2018–19 as a result of previous years’ appropriation re-phasing. Next financial year, the DCB will be $61.6 million, and in 2020–21 it will stabilise at a lower figure of approximately $45 million annually. Consequently, our DCB will remain under pressure as we work to replace assets that provide the capability needed to operate effectively in a rapidly changing security and technological environment.

We will continue to contribute to Australian Government savings measures, including the efficiency dividend, which will have a significant impact on our operating budget and DCB in 2019–20 and across the forward estimates. The Organisation will continue to identify and implement efficiencies and rigorously prioritise activities. However, further consideration will be given during 2019–20 to the sustainability of our current operations, in the light of our projected DCB and operating budget, and our anticipated future operating environment.

A table summarising ASIO’s total resources for 2018–19 is provided at Appendix A. Our total expenses by outcomes for this reporting period are at Appendix B.

ASIO Corporate Plan 2019–20 adopts a revised purpose statement for the Organisation: ‘As the nation’s security service, ASIO protects Australia from violent, clandestine and deceptive efforts to harm its people and undermine its sovereignty’. The performance statement in this annual report addresses the purpose statement and associated performance measures contained in ASIO’s Corporate Plan 2018–19. Return to text