Australia’s domestic intelligence agency is struggling to meet demand for advice on espionage and foreign interference, and cannot easily redirect resources, its former director-general warns.
Heightened levels of espionage and interference, combined with greater awareness of the twin threats, are stretching resources at the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
“Our capacity to provide our partners with advice is being outstripped by demand,” the spy agency said in its annual report.
“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.”
Duncan Lewis, who authored the agency’s annual report but has since retired, said ASIO could not easily adjust to keep up with demand.
“With the terrorist threat showing no signs of significantly decreasing, ASIO has limited scope to redirect internal resources to address the increasing gap between demand for our counter-espionage and foreign interference advice and our ability to furnish this assistance,” he said.
Lewis expects demand to grow.
“ASIO will need to build new capability and capacity to meet current and future demand for our trusted advice and expertise,” he said.
“We will necessarily 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.”
ASIO measures its performance against eight criteria, but fell short in two areas.
The first was in providing advice to national security partners, helping them disrupt and defend against “harmful espionage, foreign interference, sabotage and malicious insiders.”
The second area ASIO only “partially achieved” its target was in collecting foreign intelligence in Australia that advances the nation’s security interests.
The spy agency said the collections operations it conducted in the past year yielded valuable and unique intelligence.
“The ‘partially achieved’ result acknowledges that we were unable to progress other collection operations requested by partners,” it said.
The annual report also laid out ASIO’s activities for the past financial year:
- Counter-terrorism leads resolved or investigated: 12,478
- Disruptions of planned terror attacks: 3
- Visa security assessments: 11,669
- Personal security assessments: 32,887
- Foreign Investment Review Board assessments: 275
- Security assessments for access to sensitive sites and materials: 145,114
- Security products evaluated: 87
- Published counter-terror intelligence and security reports: 983
- Published counter-terror and foreign interference intelligence and security products: 269
- Zone 5 site inspections and reports (security): 81
ASIO has a total of 1,961 employees and an annual operating budget of $547.4 million.
By Daniel McCulloch