Report on Performance

Annual performance statement 2020-21

Introductory statement

I, as Director-General of Security and the accountable authority of ASIO, present the 2020–21 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.

Mike Burgess
Director-General of Security

Reporting framework

ASIO operates under the Australian Government’s outcomes and programs framework. Outcomes are the intended results, impacts or consequences of a purpose or activity by the government as defined in the portfolio budget statements for Commonwealth entities.

Performance reporting requirements are part of the Commonwealth Performance Framework established by the Public Governance Performance and Accountability Act 2013. It is anticipated this performance statement will be read with broader information provided in the ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24 and the Home Affairs Portfolio Budget Statements (PBS) to provide a broad picture of ASIO’s planned and actual performance.

The alignment between ASIO’s purpose, as set out in the ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24, and the Outcome and Program in the ASIO PBS is shown below.
 

ASIO Portfolio Budget Statements Portfolio Outcome 1
To protect Australia, its people and its interests from threats to security through intelligence collection, assessment and advice to government
Program 1.1 Security Intelligence
ASIO operated a single program–Security Intelligence–focused on delivering Outcome 1.

ASIO Corporate Plan 2020-24 ASIO's Purpose
To protect Australia and Australians from threats to their security
Key performance measures 1-9

Annual Performance Statements 2020-21 Report against key performance measures

ASIO’s purpose

ASIO’s purpose is to protect Australia and Australians from threats to their security, as defined in the ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24.

In 2020–21, ASIO achieved this purpose through delivering outcomes against each of the Organisation’s key priorities below.

Counter-terrorism

ASIO protects Australians from politically motivated and communal violence. We do this by collecting intelligence here and overseas; analysing and investigating terrorism threats; and providing advice to, and working with, partners to strengthen public safety and intervening to disrupt attacks.

Counter–espionage and foreign interference

ASIO protects Australia from efforts by hostile foreign intelligence services to undermine Australia’s democratic systems and institutions. We do this by collecting intelligence to detect and deter espionage and foreign interference activities targeting Australian interests here and overseas, investigating threats and advising government and industry partners as we work with them to foster institutional and community resilience.

Border security

ASIO supports whole-of-government efforts to protect Australia’s border integrity through intelligence collection and investigations into people smuggling activities. We provide unique analysis of, and security advice on, complex visa applications and other movements of goods and people, to advance the efforts of our partners in maintaining Australia’s economic and national security interests.

Reform program

ASIO is committed to accelerating the delivery of our mission through improvements to our technology. ASIO’s reform program will modernise our data analytics and increase the speed and scale of our discovery and investigative work; and deliver reforms across the Organisation to improve effectiveness in our decision-making, resolve threats quickly and drive down risk.

Governance and accountability

High levels of public trust are critical to ASIO’s operations and the effective and efficient delivery of our purpose. ASIO achieves this through strict compliance with the law, stringent application of policies and procedures, and our active cooperation with external oversight. ASIO is committed to the continual improvement of our enterprise management and governance practices to assure Australians that we pursue our work with integrity and accountability.

Performance measures

This annual performance statement provides an assessment of ASIO’s achievement of the performance measures set out in the ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24.

The measures relating to counter-terrorism, counter–espionage and foreign interference, and border security (measures 1–6) focus on the level of impact of ASIO advice (operational and/or policy). When assessing impact, we considered whether:

  • ASIO advice provided context;
  • ASIO advice was relevant and practical; and
  • ASIO advice influenced stakeholder decision-making.

For the purposes of this report, ‘advice’ encompasses all forms of communication to the Australian Government, government agencies, and industry and community sector stakeholders that conveys ASIO’s expertise, intelligence, assessments, priorities and recommendations on security matters.

The following definitions were shared with key stakeholders when determining what level of impact our advice (policy and/or operational) has had on their decision-making.

Low Medium High
Our advice provided little or no context, and did not influence your decision making.  Our advice provided context; was relevant and practical; and, influenced your decision making.  Our advice was timely and relevant; practical, focused and provided or enabled exercisable options; and directly informed and shaped your decision-making.

The remaining key priorities (measures 7–8—ASIO reform program, and measure 9—governance and accountability) focused on establishing a baseline for internal programs and utilised maturity assessments against industry standards and internal staff satisfaction surveys.

Performance methodology

Performance against our priorities has been measured through a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, including defined targets, case studies, external surveys, stakeholder feedback, and identified milestones.

In 2020, for the first time, we introduced specific performance measures designed around percentage-based impact targets. Redesigning our measures in this way was a deliberate decision to measure outcomes against our key priorities rather than outputs. Measuring outcomes in this way is important to ensure we are focusing our efforts and delivering meaningful change for stakeholders.

The ASIO stakeholder survey collected quantitative and qualitative data on ASIO’s performance from 64 stakeholders across government, tertiary and private sectors.

Given this was the first time ASIO has used percentage-based impact targets, we will continue to refine these measures—including the methodology, stakeholders, and targets—over time, in order to more accurately measure our impact across the spectrum of our work.

Summary of results

ASIO has achieved significant outcomes against the ambitious targets it set for itself in 2020–21. ASIO met seven of its nine performance measures, and partially achieved the remaining two.

In the context of a complex, challenging and changing threat environment, ASIO continued to protect Australia and Australians against terrorism. Our work enabled disruptions and supported law enforcement arrests and convictions. Our achievements represent a continuation of ASIO’s high performance in contributing to policy advice and counter-terrorism operational activity over the last 20 years. These efforts were supported by mature frameworks spanning policy, intelligence and law enforcement. ASIO is well positioned to address future challenges in the terrorism environment, such as the increasing prevalence of ideologically motivated violent extremism and growing numbers of radicalised minors.

In parallel, ASIO activities have had a significant impact on the threat of espionage and foreign interference. In 2019–20, we assessed that this threat was unprecedented. Over the last 12 months, and in the context of maturing legislative frameworks, ASIO has concertedly worked to address this threat by hardening the environment and disrupting high-harm espionage and foreign interference activity. Our cooperation with law enforcement colleagues through the ASIO-led Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce has supported this effort. While the threat continues at an unacceptably high level, and is likely to supplant the threat of terrorism in coming years, it is no longer accurate to describe the threat as ‘unprecedented’. ASIO remains well positioned to continue to protect Australia and Australians from foreign interference and espionage.

ASIO has also continued to support whole-of-government efforts to protect the integrity of Australia’s border, commensurate with the changing border environment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Supporting these efforts is the work we have undertaken to reform our capabilities, and our improvement of governance and accountability practices. Delivery of these priorities continues to enable the acceleration of our mission delivery against our key priorities.

Counter-terrorism

ASIO protects Australians from politically motivated and communal violence. We do this by collecting intelligence here and overseas; analysing and investigating terrorism threats; and providing advice to, and working with, partners to strengthen public safety and intervening to disrupt attacks.

Result—impact of ASIO’s counter-terrorism policy development advice

1. Impact of policy development advice

Measure The percentage of key stakeholders who confirm our counter-terrorism advice had a HIGH impact on their decision-making in relation to policy development and responses to terrorism.
Target 2020-21 80%; HIGH Outcome PARTIALLY ACHIEVED
Source ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24 (p. 7) | PBS 2020–21, Outcome 1 (Table 2.2)

The stakeholder survey results in relation to our ‘Counter-terrorism—impact of policy development advice’ measure were positive overall, particularly in relation to ASIO’s partnership efforts. One hundred per cent of respondents indicated ASIO had achieved a MEDIUM or higher impact with 56 per cent of respondents reporting ASIO advice had achieved a HIGH impact. This outcome is below the ambitious target we set ourselves in the ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24. Our counter-terrorism policy advice was delivered in the context of mature policy frameworks. In combination with the threat environment, these mature frameworks have resulted in a reduced demand for advice to inform policy settings.

The survey recorded a significant quantity of positive feedback, which rated ASIO as providing advice that was useful in shaping or informing counter-terrorism policy development. The survey results also demonstrated that ASIO advice has greatly assisted a number of intelligence agencies prioritising within their counter-terrorism programs.

ASIO’s advice and assessments in relation to dual-citizen foreign fighters was commented on positively. One state government department advised that it relied on ASIO advice to inform updates to relevant state legislation and to inform the state’s approach to countering violent extremism. Other feedback noted that tactical details provided by ASIO directly supported strategic judgements made by other National Intelligence Community agencies.

Additional feedback captured from stakeholders through engagements throughout the year was overwhelmingly positive.

ASIO continued to engage closely with our counter-terrorism partners—and provide assessments and advice drawn from our unique collection, investigation, and analysis capabilities, with favourable outcomes.

Examples demonstrating ASIO’s impact on stakeholder policy development include the following.

Our advice provided context

  • In September 2020 ASIO provided advice, as part of a joint initiative with a partner agency, to a state government department on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on social cohesion in Australia (and in the online environment). The advice supported the state’s countering violent extremism program efforts.
  • In April 2021, ASIO published advice on the Australian elements of one of the groups involved in the Capitol violence in Washington, US. Our advice was informed by our investigations into, and analysis of, issue-motivated violent extremists; and provided context for domestic partner agency responses to this and other similar groups.
  • ASIO received positive feedback from the private sector on assistance it provided in the development of a Standards Australia handbook on physical protective security controls of buildings. This work will help to shape building design in Australia to protect against terrorist threats, and build the baseline of protective security knowledge across the sector.

Our advice was relevant and practical

  • In August 2020, ASIO advice on the impact of COVID-19 on global and Australia-based counter-terrorism directly informed Department of Home Affairs policy and program considerations for countering violent extremism, social cohesion and community engagement.
  • In August 2020, ASIO provided the Minister for Home Affairs with advice about an Australian citizen and their affiliation with Islamic State in Libya, contributing to the first citizenship cessation case for activities conducted outside the Syria–Iraq conflict zone.

Our advice influenced decision-making

  • In December 2020, ASIO provided Home Affairs with a brief on listed terrorist organisations Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which highlighted the significant reduction of attack planning attributed to both groups. ASIO advice informed the Home Affairs proposal to not relist the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi under the Criminal Code.
  • In February 2021, ASIO provided a brief to Home Affairs on United Kingdom–based nationalist and racist violent extremist group Sonnenkrieg Division. This brief supported the Home Affairs statement of reasons for listing the group as a terrorist organisation under the Criminal Code. ASIO advice directly contributed to the decision that Sonnenkrieg Division met the legal threshold for listing.
  • Some nationalist and racist violent extremists seek to join the Australian Defence Force to obtain training and capability. ASIO and Defence have worked closely to ensure ASIO security assessment processes can be applied proactively to these individuals. As of May 2021, a new framework was agreed to, leading to ASIO receiving related referrals from Defence.

During the reporting period, our advice and intelligence informed whole-of-government efforts to mitigate the terrorist threat to Australians and Australian interests, including the following:

Result—impact of ASIO’s counter-terrorism operational activities advice

2. Impact of operational activities advice

Measure The percentage of key stakeholders who confirm our counter-terrorism advice had a HIGH impact on their decision-making in informing counter-terrorism operational activities, managing security risks and disrupting activities that threatened Australia’s security.
Target 2020-21 80%; HIGH Outcome PARTIALLY ACHIEVED
Source ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24 (p. 7) | PBS 2020–21, Outcome 1 (Table 2.2)

The stakeholder survey resulted in largely positive responses about the impact of our counter-terrorism operational activities advice. A total of 93 per cent of respondents indicated ASIO had achieved a MEDIUM or higher impact with 58 per cent of respondents reporting ASIO advice had achieved HIGH impact. This outcome is below the ambitious target we set out in the ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24. Our results reflect mature and effective counter-terrorism frameworks, particularly the well-established relationships and arrangements that facilitate joint intelligence and law enforcement activities.

Stakeholders provided a significant number of positive comments on ASIO’s support to operational activity. The early advice we provided was valuable in informing decision-making and operations. ASIO is seen as providing timely advice and playing an important role in bringing agencies together to further whole-of-government objectives.

Additional feedback captured throughout the year further demonstrated positive outcomes from ASIO’s support to operational activities. Key themes included the value of ASIO’s advice in informing decision-making and operations relating to foreign fighters; assistance with prioritisation, passport, citizenship and consular matters; and proactive support to federal and state-based police forces.

Examples demonstrating ASIO’s impact on operational activities include the following.

Our advice provided context

  • ASIO reporting throughout the 2020–21 year has continued to support Home Affairs portfolio partners and other stakeholders in managing the return of Australian foreign fighters and Australians of counter-terrorism interest, to maximise the control and readiness of the receiving jurisdiction.

Our advice was relevant and practical

  • In September 2020, ASIO deepened its collaboration with industry partners on counter-terrorism discovery by providing declassified versions of our reporting on terrorism indicators. This material provided practical advice on the indicators ASIO uses to identify new threats to security. This collaboration has informed and shaped partners’ efforts to detect and report on individuals who have purchased improvised explosive device precursors and other extremist material.
  • In December 2020, an individual was found guilty in relation to a foreign incursions offence. This concluded an investigation which was initiated by ASIO operational activity based on foreign partner lead reporting. The ASIO investigation into this individual was subsequently handed over to a state-based Joint Counter Terrorism Team, leading to the individual’s arrest. This example demonstrates the success that can be generated from ASIO’s operational advice and the close working relationships we have established with state-based Joint Counter Terrorism Teams.
  • As part of ongoing collaboration with police partners, ASIO provided a coordinated briefing program on nationalist and racist violent extremism, lone actor indicators, and symbols and key texts that officers may encounter in their work. After one of these sessions, law enforcement officers attending a crime scene identified a large volume of literature and firearms related to nationalist and racist violent extremism, resulting in a referral for further investigation.

Our advice influenced decision-making

  • Throughout 2020–21, ASIO continued to provide support to Joint Counter Terrorism Teams around Australia—including advice and assessments which assisted with operational activities, and the prosecution, sentencing, and release of various individuals for terrorism and related offences.
  • In April 2021 ASIO provided actionable intelligence to law enforcement partners about an individual expressing intent to undertake an act of politically motivated violence. ASIO advice directly informed Joint Counter Terrorism Team operational activity, resulting in criminal charges and the arrest of the individual, therefore mitigating any imminent threat he may have posed to the community.
  • In June 2021 ASIO collaborated with National Intelligence Community partners on a series of briefings to Joint Counter Terrorism Teams. Our religiously motivated violent extremism and ideologically motivated violent extremism teams provided context and case studies to assist Joint Counter Terrorism Team members in their investigations.
  • In November 2020 an individual was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment with a non-parole period of 12 years after being found guilty at retrial in April 2020 for acts done in preparation for a terrorist act. The sentencing concluded a Joint Counter Terrorism Team investigation that commenced in Sydney in 2016 with the arrest of two 16-year-olds detected carrying knives in a public place, who have now both been convicted and sentenced for a terrorism offence. Both received the same sentence and will be eligible to apply for parole in 2028, and for release in 2032.
  • In November 2020 Philip Galea was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment with a nine-year non-parole period on one count of collecting or making documents likely to facilitate a terrorist act contrary to section 101.5 of the Criminal Code, and one count of acts done in preparation for, or planning, terrorist acts, contrary to section 101.6 of the Criminal Code. The charges related to a 2016 plot to attack a range of potential targets including Melbourne Trades Hall, the Anarchist Book Shop, and the Resistance Centre—which is the headquarters of the Socialist Alliance. Galea is the first Australian with an ideologically motivated violent extremist ideology—specifically, nationalist and racist—convicted under Australia’s counter-terrorism laws. Galea was arrested on 6 August 2016, and convicted on 5 December 2019.
     

Case study–counter-terrorism disruptions

Most counter-terrorism disruptions originate from ASIO intelligence investigations. In accordance with our statutory functions, we discover and pursue threat leads which then transition to police-led criminal investigations. ASIO’s support to partners includes providing assessments, advice and operational coordination.

There have been three major counter-terrorism disruptions in the past year. ASIO worked with partners to achieve these outcomes.

In November 2020 a Queensland man was arrested and charged with preparing or planning for a terrorist act. In February 2021 a man who was on remand was arrested for allegedly planning a series of violent extremist acts. In March 2021 two Victorian men were arrested and charged with a range of terrorism-related offences, including attempting to engage in a terrorist act. All three matters remain before the courts.

In addition, in December 2020 the New South Wales (NSW) Joint Counter Terrorism Team arrested and charged a man based in NSW with terrorism-related offences. It will be alleged in court the man used social media forums to encourage other people to commit violent acts in support of a nationalist and racist violent extremist ideology. The man was charged with Commonwealth terrorism offences, including advocating terrorism.

Counter–espionage and foreign interference

ASIO protects Australia from efforts by hostile foreign intelligence services to undermine Australia's democratic systems and institutions. We do this by collecting intelligence to detect and deter espionage and foreign interference activities targeting Australian interests here and oversea, investigating threats and advising government and industry partners as we work with them to foster institutional and community resilience.

Result—impact of ASIO’s counter–espionage and foreign interference policy development advice

3. Impact of policy development advice

Measure The percentage of key stakeholders who confirm our counter–espionage and foreign interference advice had a MEDIUM impact on their decision-making in relation to espionage and foreign interference–related policy development and responses to this threat.
Target 2020-21 70%; MEDIUM Outcome ACHIEVED
Source ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24 (p. 8) | PBS 2020–21, Outcome 1 (Table 2.2)

The stakeholder survey results indicate ASIO exceeded the target of 70 per cent of respondents providing a rating of MEDIUM level of impact on counter–espionage and foreign interference policy development, with 100 per cent of respondents reporting ASIO advice had a MEDIUM or higher level of impact on their decision-making.

ASIO’s increasingly prominent counter-espionage and counter−foreign interference efforts were highly regarded by our stakeholders. In the context of maturing espionage and foreign interference legislative and policy frameworks, ASIO’s advice is regarded as being very influential; and ASIO is seen as an essential partner.

Survey respondents also commented that ASIO’s advice had been highly valuable in determining positions, informing priorities and assisting decision-making. Respondents noted an increased level of advice, contact and collaboration had occurred over the reporting period.

Additional reporting on our counter–espionage and foreign interference policy–related workflows collected from stakeholders throughout the year supports the assessment that our advice is having, at a minimum, a MEDIUM level of impact on stakeholder decision-making.

The 2020–21 reporting period saw a continued upward trajectory in government and private sector demand for ASIO counter–espionage and foreign interference advice and solutions, with ASIO working closely with stakeholders to promote and facilitate improved security practices and advocate policy settings that will provide for Australia’s security into the future.

Examples demonstrating ASIO’s impact on stakeholder policy development include the following.

Our advice provided context

ASIO contributed to increasing resilience by providing contextual protective security advice to government and private sector stakeholders.

  • We published a range of intelligence and security products during the reporting period to support the development of policy to counter espionage and foreign interference.

ASIO provided protective security and defensive counter–espionage and foreign interference advice which improved consistency in policy messaging across the Australian Government, including advice to Commonwealth parliamentarians regarding foreign interference activities and the threat from malicious insiders.

  • Advice was provided to ministers and their offices on the threat of foreign intelligence services targeting the Australian Government, including delegations travelling overseas, and measures to mitigate this threat.
  • Advice was provided to the Australian Government on the threat of foreign interference in our political system and the targeting of Australians for foreign intelligence collection purposes.
  • The Attorney-General’s Department advised that ASIO’s feedback on insider threat policy guidance was useful and assisted consistency in policy messaging across the Australian Government.

Our advice was relevant and practical

ASIO provided relevant and practical advice to government departments, which led to positive security decisions and beneficial security outcomes.

  • We provided advice to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) on foreign intelligence services use of academic cover organisations to target Australian interests. This advice informed DFAT officers in their routine engagement with foreign academics.
  • We provided advice on security culture and contact reporting processes to a range of government departments.
  • Awareness of foreign interference threats in Australia’s political institutions and processes was increased through advice from the Director-General to senior decision-makers across the Australian Government and state and territory governments, such as departments of Premier and Cabinet or equivalent.

Our personnel security assessments continued to play a pivotal role in assisting the Australian Government to manage threats to Australia’s national security associated with access to privileged government information, places, activities and capabilities.

  • In 2020–21, we completed 39 320 personnel security assessments, comprising 35 277 assessments for Baseline, Negative Vetting (NV) 1 and 2 clearances and 4043 Positive Vetting (PV) clearances. This is an increase of 5285 completed assessments compared with the previous year.
  • The increased number of cases completed in 2020–21 continued a trend of growth in overall personnel security assessment workload and indicates the increasing demand for personnel security assessments.
  • More than 150 personal security briefings were completed. These are used to provide security advice to the subject of an ASIO personnel security assessment to allow them to better understand specific security risks relevant to them and to detail actions to limit and manage those risks.
  • We also completed a number of adverse and qualified personnel security assessments, containing information and recommendations about an individual’s suitability to be granted or continue to hold a clearance.

Our advice influenced decision-making

Throughout the reporting period we continued to deepen our relationships across government and the private sector to discover, disrupt and deter threats to Australia and Australians and significantly reduce harm. Examples of the impact of ASIO advice on informing partner policy initiatives include the following.

  • ASIO advice influenced the internal processes of Australian universities, and generated positive feedback from the universities’ senior executives.
  • ASIO received positive feedback on our advice from Outreach subscribers, including that our advice prompted discussions with internal security areas within industry and government.
  • Supporting whole-of-government diplomacy efforts in the Indo-Pacific, ASIO assessment processes for proposed inward foreign investment was briefed to a foreign government resulting in a request for further advice on critical infrastructure protection.

In 2020–21 ASIO continued to provide key stakeholders across government—including the Critical Infrastructure Centre within Home Affairs, the Department of Defence, Treasury, and the Foreign Investment Review Board—with advice on the threat posed by foreign ownership and control of critical infrastructure.

  • For the financial year 2020–21, ASIO responded to 457 investment applications received from Treasury in support of the Foreign Investment Review Board’s consideration of foreign investment proposals. Our assessments of these applications concern the potential for foreign powers to undertake espionage, foreign interference or sabotage as a result of overseas investment in critical infrastructure and other sensitive sectors of the economy.

Case study—Think Before You Link campaign

ASIO delivered its first public awareness campaign, Think Before You Link, to government and industry customers in November 2020. The campaign raised awareness of the threat posed by malicious social media profiles and provided guidance on how to minimise the risk of being targeted through professional networks and other online platforms.

Government and industry customers have deployed the campaign materials internally to communicate ASIO’s messaging directly to staff worldwide. Several state and territory governments and industry customers said that the campaign informed their decision-making. One prominent Australian Government department specifically cited the value derived from the campaign, noting the videos and supporting documentation had been simple to use and effective across their agency.

The campaign generated significant interest. According to media analysis commissioned by the Organisation, the campaign reached a potential audience of more than nine million. Fifty per cent of that coverage was on television, and traffic to the ASIO website increased by over 200 per cent in the days following the launch. Video content produced for the campaign has been viewed more than 42 000 times on ASIO’s social media channels.

Result—impact of ASIO’s counter–espionage and foreign interference operational activities advice

4. Impact of operational activities advice

Measure The percentage of key stakeholders who confirm our counter–espionage and foreign interference advice had a MEDIUM impact on their decision-making in informing counter–espionage and foreign interference operational activities, managing security risks and disrupting activities that threatened Australia’s security.
Target 2020-21 70%; MEDIUM Outcome ACHIEVED
Source ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24 (p. 8) | PBS 2020–21, Outcome 1 (Table 2.2)

Results from the stakeholder survey show that 89 per cent of stakeholders rated ASIO’s performance as having a MEDIUM or higher impact on their decision-making.

Within maturing coordination frameworks, ASIO’s advice was useful in shaping or informing counter–espionage and foreign interference operational activities. Our advice was well received, had become more timely and expansive, and had been influential in informing operational decisions.

Additional feedback provided by stakeholders throughout the year supports the assessment that our advice had a MEDIUM level of impact on stakeholder decision-making in relation to their operational activities.

Examples demonstrating ASIO’s impact to operational activities include the following.

Our advice provided context

During 2020–21 ASIO continued our focus on supporting the development of counter–espionage and foreign interference capability across government and the private sector. Our ability to provide advice is derived from the insights we gain from our investigative work, and this advice had a direct impact on the operational decision-making of our key stakeholders providing context through which positive security outcomes were achieved.

  • The Australian Government Security Vetting Agency provided favourable feedback on collaboration and improvements to information exchange processes.
  • ASIO provided intelligence advice to a state law enforcement partner about a target assessed to be engaged in foreign interference activities. This advice provided additional context to the partner’s separate criminal investigation, which was not related to espionage and foreign interference.The law enforcement partner’s subsequent overt activities were assessed to have disrupted the target’s foreign interference activities.
  • ASIO contributed to identifying and responding to an ongoing cyber espionage campaign against Australian Government targets and service providers, thereby mitigating significant harm and informing the Australian Government’s policy response.

Our advice was relevant and practical

  • ASIO provided intelligence to the Australian Federal Police (AFP), via the Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce, about an Australian citizen whom we assessed to be in a clandestine relationship with a foreign intelligence service. ASIO’s intelligence assisted the AFP’s ongoing investigation into this target, and informed their planning and execution of warranted activities aimed at collecting evidence on potential espionage and foreign interference offences. We assess that the AFP’s overt actions have disrupted this individual’s foreign interference activities.
  • In February 2021, ASIO provided a briefing to a Universities Australia workshop to increase understanding of the security risks associated with foreign involvement in sensitive research. The workshop was attended by 100 senior university representatives, and feedback on ASIO’s support was extremely positive.

Our advice influenced decision-making

  • ASIO provided advice to the Department of Home Affairs on the subjects of our foreign interference investigations, which informed Home Affairs decisions to cancel Australian visas, effectively reducing the harm being perpetrated by the visa holders.
  • In 2020–21, the Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce delivered programs to build awareness of foreign interference matters among partners. These programs are a critical component of efforts to improve interoperability and collaboration between law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

During the reporting period, ASIO provided the following:

  • 214 counter-espionage and foreign interference products
  • 69 products that span both counter-espionage and foreign interference and counter-terrorism.
     

Case study–nest of spies

In 2020 an ASIO investigation focused on disrupting a ‘nest of spies’ which was operating in Australia.

The activities undertaken by the foreign service had the potential to cause significant harm to Australia’s interests and those who reside in our communities. Notably, the foreign intelligence officers successfully cultivated and recruited an Australian Government security clearance holder with access to sensitive information. They sought to obtain classified information about Australia’s trade relationships and gain access to technology not otherwise available to them.

The foreign intelligence agency developed targeted relationships with current and former politicians, Australians with access to privileged and classified information, and community leaders who favoured the foreign agency’s agenda and monitored their country’s diaspora community.

Through our disruption activities—cancelling the government employee’s security clearance, confronting the foreign spies and removing them from Australia—we are confident we have degraded this foreign service’s ability to conduct adverse intelligence activities in Australia. We continue to monitor for any evidence the service is attempting to rebuild capacity to undertake undeclared intelligence activity in Australia.

Border security

ASIO supports whole-of-government efforts to protect Australia's border integrity through intelligence collection and investigations into people smuggling activities. We provide unique analysis of, and security advice on, complex visa applications and other movements of goods and people, to advance the efforts of our partners in maintaining Australia's economic and national security interests.

Result—impact of ASIO border-related policy development advice

5. Impact of policy development advice

Measure The percentage of key stakeholders who confirm our advice on countering serious threats to Australia’s border integrity, security-sensitive areas or substances had a MEDIUM impact on their decision-making in relation to policy development and responses to serious threats to Australia’s border integrity, security-sensitive areas or substances.
Target 2020-21 70%; MEDIUM Outcome ACHIEVED
Source ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24 (p. 9) | PBS 2020–21, Outcome 1 (Table 2.2)

Stakeholder survey results show that 100 per cent of stakeholders surveyed rated ASIO’s performance as having a MEDIUM or higher impact. ASIO’s advice was useful in shaping or informing border security policy development, and was of good quality.

Additional reporting gathered internally on our border policy–related workflows also demonstrated that our advice had a MEDIUM level of impact on stakeholder decision-making. ASIO continued to provide actionable policy-related advice to key Australian Government border security partners, including DFAT and Home Affairs portfolio agencies such as the AFP and Australian Border Force (ABF).

Examples demonstrating ASIO’s impact on stakeholder policy development include the following

Our advice provided context

  • ASIO advice and input has informed Office of National Intelligence assessment and published product, including the Prime Minister’s Intelligence Daily.
  • ASIO Community Contact Program briefing to Home Affairs provided useful context and informed the planning of Home Affairs reporting efforts.

Our advice was relevant and practical

  • In the reporting period, ASIO received positive feedback for relevant and practical investigative input which prompted ongoing National Intelligence Community activities related to potential irregular immigrants located in Indonesia.

Our advice influenced decision-making

ASIO advice influenced decision-making and informed partner policy initiatives.

  • ASIO contributed to Home Affairs assessment product and threat-prioritisation frameworks, with Home Affairs modifying threat prioritisation matrixes and incorporating our advice directly into its decision-making processes.

Result—impact of ASIO border-related operational activities advice

6. Impact of operational activities advice

Measure The percentage of key stakeholders who confirm our advice on countering serious threats to Australia’s border integrity, security-sensitive areas or substances had a MEDIUM impact on their decision-making in relation to actions and activities to disrupt and defend against serious threats to Australia’s border integrity, security-sensitive areas or substances.
Target 2020-21 70%; MEDIUM Outcome ACHIEVED
Source ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24 (p. 9) | PBS 2020–21, Outcome 1 (Table 2.2)

Stakeholder survey results show 100 per cent of stakeholders surveyed rated ASIO’s performance as having a MEDIUM or higher impact. ASIO’s advice was useful in shaping or informing border-related operational activities and added balance to other lines of reporting; by doing so it directly enhanced Australia’s border security.

Additional reporting gathered internally on our border operational–related workflows also demonstrated that ASIO advice had a MEDIUM level of impact on stakeholder decision-making. We did this by providing security assessments and other actionable advice to key Australian Government border security partners, including DFAT and Home Affairs portfolio agencies such as the AFP and ABF.

Examples demonstrating ASIO’s impact on operational activities include the following.

Our advice provided context and was relevant and practical

ASIO assisted whole-of-government responses to threats to Australia’s border integrity. In the reporting period, we continued to provide relevant and practical support to partner agency background-checking services.

  • Home Affairs portfolio partners reported that ASIO’s processing time for security assessments was well within existing service-level agreements during the reporting period.
  • Partners (including AusCheck) reported that ASIO advice has been relevant and practical and provided within existing service-level agreements.
  • We worked closely with partners to find efficiencies which, combined with reduced travel as a result of COVID-19, resulted in a significantly decreased number of referrals for visa security assessments during the reporting period.
  • We issued a number of adverse and qualified assessments, informing stakeholders’ decision-making on the issuing or cancelling of visas, or the refusal of citizenship, to mitigate a range of national security risks.

Table 1: Completed visa assessments

Type of entry 2018–19 2019–20 2020–21
Temporary visas 1219 589 506
Permanent residence and citizenship 155 49 24
Onshore protection (air) 32 8 7
Offshore refugee/humanitarian 747 115 43
Illegal maritime arrivals 40 14 4
Other referred caseloads 2121 1740 909
Resolution of national security border alerts 7385 8530 4478
Total 11 699 11 045 5971


 

Case study–border security

In March 2021, ASIO and partner agency open-source collaboration identified the location of two offshore-based people smuggling targets. Exploitation of open-source tools was combined with target knowledge and target analysis to deliver this result. Specifically, we determined the location of the two people smugglers by identifying the landmark which appeared in the background of images. Results of this work were used to support ongoing investigations.

Reform program

ASIO is committed ot accelerating the delivery of our mission through improvements to our technology. ASIO's reform program will modernise our data analytics and increase the speed and scale of our discovery and investigative work; and deliver reforms across the Organisation to improve effectiveness in our decision-making, resolve threats quickly and drive down risk.

Result—ASIO IT service management

7. IT Service Management

Measure Benchmarking ASIO’s maturity for IT service management against an industry standard. Once benchmarked, develop a plan to increase ASIO’s maturity for IT service management to the desired level, within the set timeframe.
Target 2020-21 Establish baseline Outcome ACHIEVED
Source ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24 (p. 10) | PBS 2020–21, Outcome 1 (Table 2.2)

A process to benchmark ASIO’s IT service management maturity was undertaken, using an industry standard based on the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL). A Service Management Maturity Assessment (SMMA) model was developed, which will allow ASIO to continue to reassess IT service management maturity on an ongoing basis.

To enable a focused ITIL assessment, customised questions were collated for each of the 10 identified high-priority IT practice areas, including functions such as service request management and IT asset management. The assessment questions were categorised across the dimensions of ‘people’, ‘practices’ and ‘technology/tools’. Questions across each of these sub-categories were included for all IT practice areas assessed. A number of workshops were also conducted involving representatives with appropriate subject matter knowledge of the IT practice areas.

The outcomes of the SMMA development and workshops provided a targeted assessment of maturity across the priority IT practice areas—establishing a baseline. The maturity assessment report findings informed the development of a high-level roadmap and project proposal. The project aims for progressive, targeted improvements in service delivery that will be sustained beyond the conclusion of the project.

Through benchmarking our IT service management maturity, and developing a plan to increase that level where necessary, ASIO will be better positioned to extract value from our investments in technology to support our mission.

Result—ASIO staff satisfaction with workflow improvements

7. Staff satisfaction with workflow improvements

Measure The percentage of employees who agree (using a seven-point scale) that:
  1. the workflow improvements have led to either (a) a reduction in the manual work previously required of them or (b) the streamlining of duplicative processes;
  2. the tool support, developed as part of the workflow improvements, has made it easier for them to resolve issues themselves; and
  3. bringing the workflow on-system has provided consistency and visibility to the work done.
Target 2020-21 50% of staff in affected area ‘somewhat agree’ or higher for all three categories Outcome ACHIEVED
Source ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24 (p. 10) | PBS 2020–21, Outcome 1 (Table 2.2)

A range of workflow improvements were developed and deployed—via multiple individual projects—throughout the year, targeting focus areas identified through internal consultation.

In parallel with the workflow improvements, a suite of support materials were developed to support users to adopt the changes. These materials included tailored online support such as guides and links to policies and procedures, online discussion forums and targeted workshops.

To measure the benefits delivered by the workflow changes, we assessed staff satisfaction levels through surveys and targeted feedback sessions, both before and after the workflow changes were made. The questions put to stakeholders, while comparable with the measures listed in the ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24, were adjusted to be more relevant and specific to the deployed changes. This approach provided more targeted feedback on the impact of the changes, which will further inform the direction of future workflow changes.

Based on these survey results and stakeholder feedback, there is evidence that the requirement for manual and duplicative work to compile all the information for a required intelligence decision has been measurably reduced, and that overall staff satisfaction with the workflow changes that achieved this is above 50 per cent for staff surveyed.

The user feedback and usage statistics show that the tool support and documentation provided has enhanced users’ ability to resolve issues themselves, without seeking additional technical assistance.

Survey results and user feedback have shown that the workflow changes introduced have brought improved consistency and visibility to ASIO processes. The consolidation of data sources has led to a significant uplift in the effectiveness of our analytic processes. Improved data visibility to assist with decision-making and more streamlined processes has resulted in more comprehensive intelligence outcomes.

Overall the workflow changes implemented are assessed to have resulted in measurable workflow improvements, as well as overall staff satisfaction levels above 50 per cent for relevant stakeholder cohorts, across all of the three measures. We assess that we will achieve further improvement over time as the changes become more integrated into ASIO’s day-to-day work practices.

Governance and accountability

High levels of public trust are critical to ASIO's operations and the effective and efficient delivery of our purpose. ASIO achieves this through strict compliance with the law, stringent application of policies and procedures, and our active cooperation with external oversight. ASIO is committed to the continual improvement of our enterprise management and governance practices to assure Australians that we pursue our work with integrity and accountability. 

Result—governance and accountability

9. Compliance framework maturity

Measure The maturity of ASIO’s compliance framework across the Organisation’s obligations including, but not limited to, inquiries and investigations, safety and security, and finances.
Target 2020-21 Establish baseline Outcome ACHIEVED
Source ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24 (p. 11) | PBS 2020–21, Outcome 1 (Table 2.2)

In 2020–21, ASIO demonstrated our ongoing commitment to the highest standards of ethics and compliance through maturing our compliance framework and our observance of applicable laws, regulations, rules and policies.

A compliance maturity assessment was undertaken in accordance with the ‘Governance and Accountability’ performance measure detailed in the ASIO Corporate Plan 2020–24.

  • ASIO identified a model and measurement scale to assess ASIO’s compliance maturity. The compliance maturity model defines the themes and characteristics of compliance at different levels, allowing for a staged progress. Within this model, statements or indicators summarise the themes and characteristics of compliance at each level of maturity.
  • The model draws on Australian Standard Compliance management systems—guidelines (AS ISO 19600:2015), to define the themes and characteristics of compliance management.
  • Stakeholder consultation was conducted to inform the key themes for the compliance maturity assessment, and to define the characteristics and behaviours to demonstrate achievement of the key themes at each given level of maturity. A five level measurement scale was developed to assess ASIO’s compliance maturity.
  • An initial maturity assessment was conducted utilising evidence-based data and consultation with key stakeholders. This provided a baseline maturity assessment for 2020–21, which has informed the establishment of maturity assessment targets for 2021–22 to ensure continuous improvement.

Analysis of performance

ASIO achieved its purpose during the reporting period through the delivery of outcomes against key priorities. Stakeholders are highly satisfied with their partnerships with ASIO, and there continues to be an overall improvement in the perception of our performance and impact.

ASIO is seen as an organisation that delivers well-considered influential advice and operational activities. Opportunities for improving our partnerships include closer engagement and proactive exchanges of targeted information.

ASIO’s security intelligence program contributed to the outcomes of other agencies through security advice, intelligence and services. Our advice to partners within government, the national security community, industry and community sectors in 2020–21 provided the knowledge and understanding to enable them to respond appropriately to security threats.

ASIO countered terrorism and protected Australians from religiously motivated and ideologically motivated violent extremism. ASIO collected intelligence within Australia and overseas, analysed and investigated terrorist threats, and worked with our domestic and overseas partners to protect Australia and Australians from threats to their security. The impact of ASIO’s advice and collaborative work is demonstrated by positive stakeholder feedback and successful operational activity.

ASIO countered espionage and foreign interference by delivering targeted effects against foreign intelligence services seeking to covertly influence, undermine or conduct espionage against Australia’s government information, political systems, military capabilities, non-military strategic assets and community. ASIO collection and investigations helped discover and understand the nature of the threats against Australia, our advice hardened vulnerable sectors, and we collaborated with partners to disrupt and deter those harming our national interests.

ASIO supported whole-of-government efforts to protect Australia’s border integrity by providing analysis and security advice on complex visa applications and other movements of goods and people, to assist partners to maintain the integrity of Australia’s border protection programs.

ASIO continued to invest in its people, practices and technology. Ensuring the safety of our staff in a COVID-19 environment, ASIO adopted a range of strategies to sustain coverage of high-priority targets related to our counter-terrorism and counter–espionage and foreign interference missions.

ASIO made progress in the delivery of improvements to the technology and systems that underpin our mission delivery. The reform program is a multi-year initiative, and we expect to deliver further improvements as the program evolves.

The effectiveness of our partnerships has contributed significantly to the achievement of our purpose. ASIO is seen as a high-quality and valued partner worthy of stakeholder investment and offering unique value. Ongoing engagements, high levels of performance, and a commitment to enhanced partnerships has and will continue to support the achievement of our purpose.

Report on financial performance

Financial performance

The COVID-19 pandemic continued to have an impact on the delivery of ASIO’s activities for the 2020–21 financial year, resulting in less expenditure than initially planned. The financial statements report an $82.2 million operating deficit compared with $90.1 million operating deficit in 2019–20. ASIO’s 2020–21 operating funding from Government was $455.2 million compared to $473.0 million in 2019–20. In 2020–21 ASIO incurred $142.0 million in depreciation and amortisation expenses (including for the right-of-use leased assets) noting that the Australian Government does not provide operating funding for these expenses. ASIO also incurred $34.2 million in principal repayments for leased assets reflecting the implementation of AASB 16 Leases which became effective on 1 July 2019. After adjusting for these items, the 2020–21 operating result is a surplus of $25.6 million compared to $17.1 million in 2019–20.

ASIO commenced a modest self-funded program of reforms to accelerate the delivery of our mission through improvements to our technology. This reform work will continue into 2021–22.

ASIO’s 2020–21 departmental capital budget funding was $82.3 million, compared with $61.3 million the previous financial year. This funding has been applied to the necessary development, enhancement and replacement of assets to support ASIO’s operational effectiveness in the increasingly fluid security and technology environments. In 2020–21 ASIO received $10.5 million as an equity injection compared with $10.9 million in 2019–20.

ASIO has continued to identify and implement efficiencies across its operations and contribute to Australian Government savings measures.

ASIO’s complete financial results for 2020–21 are available in the financial statements in this report.

A table summarising ASIO’s total resources for 2020–21 is provided at Appendix A.

Our total expenses by outcome for this reporting period are at Appendix B.