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Vetting the vetters

Posted By on August 14, 2017 @ 12:30

I agree with Peter Jennings’ assessment [1] that the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review [2] seems to have been almost overshadowed by the Turnbull government’s announcement of the new Home Affairs portfolio.

The 23 major recommendations of the review identify areas in which the Australian intelligence community (AIC) can perform better. One of those is the time taken by the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency (AGSVA) [3] to process applications for ‘Top Secret Positive Vetting’ (TS(PV)) clearances. According to the review, delays are ‘exacerbating the intelligence community’s existing workforce challenges’. The review noted that AGSVA clearances have taken more than 18 months on average.

However, this isn’t the first time the issue has been raised. The inspector-general of intelligence services, Margaret Stone, raised concerns in Senate Estimates hearings in October 2016 [4] and again in May this year [5] about the time taken by AGSVA to process clearances for would-be employees of the Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence Services. Stone said, ‘The problem is that the security clearances take so long. In fact we had two offerees pull out after more than 18 months’. With a full-time equivalent staff of just 17, it’s easy to see the impact of prolonged delays on the operational capacity of Stone’s office.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) raised concerns about AGSVA’s processing times in a report in 2015 [6]. The report concluded:

AGSVA has been unable to meet agreed benchmark timeframes for processing security clearances since 2010, and despite investments in people, systems and processes, there has been no noticeable improvement in the timeliness of clearance processing. In 2013–14, AGSVA completed 55 per cent of clearances within the relevant benchmark timeframe, compared to the target of 95 per cent. In March 2015, over 13 000 security clearances were overdue for revalidation—a process involving the assessment of individuals’ ongoing suitability to hold security clearances. The backlog is a consequence of AGSVA using available resources to prioritise the processing of initial clearances, so as to enable employees and contractors to start work in positions that require a security clearance. The significant backlog of revalidation work requires management attention at a time of heightened government concern about the threat posed by trusted insiders.

It would appear that the government didn’t heed the ANAO’s warning, as the problems continue.

AGSVA is the central agency for processing and granting security clearances for many federal, state and territory agencies. It processes clearances for the Department of Defence and the wider intelligence community, including the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, AUSTRAC and the Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. Worryingly, the intelligence review highlighted that the AGSVA took ‘substantially longer than some AIC agencies that undertake their own TS(PV) clearances’. ASIO, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and the Office of National Assessments each have their own TS(PV) clearance processes that meet their needs.

The Gillard government originally established AGSVA within Defence in October 2010. The aim was to replace a decentralised system—in which individual entities managed personnel security vetting based on Australian government policy requirements—with a whole-of-government vetting service operating on a fee-for-service basis. According to the 2015 ANAO report, ‘The Government expected that centralised vetting would: result in a more efficient vetting process; improve the consistency of vetting practices; and deliver $5.3 million in annual cost savings’. But the model has clearly failed our intelligence agencies and potentially hampered their operational capacity.

The problems plaguing security vetting were in the spotlight before AGSVA’s formation. In 2011, the ABC’s Lateline [7] reported on concerns raised about the Defence Security Authority by three former Defence workers. They alleged that, in 2009–10, false information had been included in thousands of security checks to speed up the vetting process, potentially compromising ASIO’s records and Australia’s national security. An inquiry [8] confirmed that the substance of the allegations was true, and that the integrity of data in both Defence and ASIO had been undermined, if not compromised.

In a time of unprecedented challenges to our national security, the long delays in security vetting for some of our key intelligence agencies are clearly unacceptable. The authors of the intelligence review recommend that:

ASIO receive additional resourcing to allow it to second staff to AGSVA as soon as possible. We also recommend that the situation with AGSVA TS(PV) clearances be reviewed in early 2018 to allow time for the current remediation program to have effect. If processing times still exceed six months, alternative options for TS(PV) clearances should be explored.

They also call for consideration of options such as devolving the responsibility for TS(PV) clearances to individual intelligence agencies, and giving ASIO responsibility for TS(PV) clearances for staff of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Australian Federal Police and the Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence Services, among others.

The Turnbull government should heed those recommendations and conduct an immediate review of the AGSVA. It should also consider reinstituting the model of individual entities managing their own security vetting based on Australian government policy requirements—even though, for the intelligence agencies, it would be a case of back to the future.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/vetting-the-vetters/

URLs in this post:

[1] Peter Jennings’ assessment: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/intelligence-review-design-for-a-secure-home/news-story/4077586a777f266a77cf37f17dbe8137#http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/intelligence-review-design-for-a-secure-home/news-story/4077586a7

[2] 2017 Independent Intelligence Review: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au#https://pmc.gov.au/resource-centre/national-security/report-2017-independent-intelligence-review

[3] Australian Government Security Vetting Agency (AGSVA): http://www.defence.gov.au/AGSVA/

[4] October 2016: http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id:%22committees/estimate/21e0ee53-d2e8-4e07-9eb0-bdc8b8220547/0000%22

[5] May this year: http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id:%22committees/estimate/29ee2a15-f7a1-4a29-b10b-6f2881c2bcb2/0000%22

[6] report in 2015: https://www.anao.gov.au/work/performance-audit/central-administration-security-vetting

[7] Lateline: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2011/s3218543.htm

[8] An inquiry: https://www.igis.gov.au/public-announcements/inquiry-allegations-inappropriate-vetting-practices-defence-security-authority

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