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Johnston criticises Labor over security vetti -

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Johnston criticises Labor over security vetting

Broadcast: 19/10/2011

Reporter: Steve Cannane

Opposition spokesman on defence David Johnston today told a Senate hearing three Labor ministers
were told of problems with security vetting back in 2010.

Transcript

STEVE CANNANE, PRESENTER: Here is a story about today's revelation that 20,000 Defence security
clearances will have to be rechecked.

A short time ago I was joined from Canberra by the Opposition spokesman on Defence, David Johnston.

David Johnston, thanks for talking to us.

DAVID JOHNSTON, OPPOSITION DEFENCE SPOKESMAN: Pleasure.

STEVE CANNANE: What evidence do you have that three Labor ministers back in 2010 knew about the
allegations that security in embassies and on military sites was being compromised by substandard
security checks at the DSA in Brisbane?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well we only have the word of the people who were actually doing those checks, who
informed a number of people, including people retained by government to do a report on what was
going on, pertaining predominantly to bullying, but who also highlighted the fact that there were
significant and serious shortcomings in the security vetting procedures being carried out.

Now, a local member of Parliament, the then Labor member for Ford, was informed. He informed then
Minister Griffin, who CCed a letter complaining of precisely all of these important matters to a
Cabinet minister, Minister Emerson.

Now this all happened in 2010, and of course Minister Smith in the Defence Department comes along
and says - I think it's in September or October - that there's a really serious problem. Well, gee,
that problem has been on foot for longer than 12 months.

STEVE CANNANE: I've seen some of those letters this afternoon going between Warren Snowdon, Brett
Regoose and also Alan Griffin and they seem to be about claims of bullying and harassment rather
than the actual security vetting process.

DAVID JOHNSTON: And those whistleblowers, those people who were employed, say they told everybody
about what they were doing with respect to workarounds, and indeed, if you look at some of the
reports that we now know from Senate estimates today existed at the time, they specifically address
the issue of these security vetting shortcomings.

STEVE CANNANE: The Minister for Defence Stephen Smith, who wasn't the minister at the time, said
today that these allegations are baseless. He said in a statement that, "Allegations about security
processes were subsequently raised in passing in the course of the investigation into harassment
and bullying allegations." He seems to be saying that the allegations about vetting were raised
later in the process.

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well that's not what the evidence was today from senior Defence officials. They
said yes, the evidence was raised, that specific mention was made of these shortcomings in the top
secret and other classified vetting procedures were clearly identified and that government did
nothing about it. Now, you know, how much more of an alarm bell do you really need?

STEVE CANNANE: The minister was referring to the Trent Brennan report, which was raised in Senate
estimates today, and it didn't just cover the allegations of bullying and harassment; it did deal
with those allegations of security breaches. Why were those allegations not followed up by the
Department of Defence?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, it just seems they treated these whistleblowers as cranks. Now, you know,
anybody who has dealt with people over a long period of time should know that when someone raises
an issue as potentially problematic as this is - and bear in mind we've had to redo something in
excess of 20,000 security vets. I stagger to think how much that's going to cost and where the
people who have been improperly vetted are now, but alarm bells should've gone off.

And indeed any minister who was privy to any such information as this should have, as a matter of
just obvious administrative propriety, gone further to say, "Hang on, this vetting regime has got
integrity issues."

STEVE CANNANE: Do you think there's a cultural problem in the Department of Defence? Not only did
they not follow up those allegations in the Trent Brennan report about security breaches, but the
actual whistleblowers themselves say that they were bullied into being stopped asking questions
about the issue of security breaches.

DAVID JOHNSTON: Precisely. There is a shoot-the-messenger culture inside certain parts of Defence
and I think this whole sorry saga is a bit of a smoking gun of an example of that.

STEVE CANNANE: Well what does it say about the Department of Defence when it takes outsiders; these
people were junior staff, they were hired by an outside labour recruitment firm and they were the
ones who were blowing the whistle. They were telling their bosses that they weren't comfortable by
this and their bosses were saying, "Get on with your job."

DAVID JOHNSTON: Yes. It is very, very concerning, and look where we find ourself - ourselves. We
now have an Inspector-General of Security and Intelligence inquiry which has been commissioned by
the Prime Minister herself. It doesn't get much more serious than this.

STEVE CANNANE: So Defence today in Senate estimates admitted that 5,000 top security clearances
will have to be redone. What kind of people are we talking about working in those kind of areas?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well I'm a bit frightened to think about it actually. You know, we have embassies,
foreign dignitaries, all coming to Australia, all being the subject of people with security
clearances doing rudimentary and fundamental jobs like servicing the aircraft and doing all these
sorts of things. It is very concerning that this problem has come to the point that it has because
it was ignored for so long.

STEVE CANNANE: You mentioned there foreign dignitaries. We've got the Queen here in Australia at
the moment, we've got president Obama coming. Are you concerned that there could be people close to
those kind of dignitaries who may not have passed proper security checks due to what's been raised
by these whistleblowers?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well given that we now know of the problem, I hope and trust that I don't need to
be concerned and I'm probably not concerned.

However, had this not come to light obviously on a television program, your program, it seems the
Government would have just continued to ignore these people. Now, hopefully the alarm bell has gone
off and action has been taken such that in circumstances that you have mentioned, these dignitaries
arriving soon, remedial action has been taken and there is no risk, and I'd like to think there is
no risk. But, you know, it's been a long, hard road.

STEVE CANNANE: So, there's going to be 20,000 all together clearances that have to be revalidated.
How long will that process take?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, today the indications were that it's going to take some long time and be
very, very expensive. 20,000 people, you know, to investigate where they were born, their
antecedent backgrounds, is a - to do it properly, to communicate that information to ASIO, is a
significant task and it should not have come to this.

STEVE CANNANE: Well it take months, will it take years?

DAVID JOHNSTON: I think it'll take something in excess of six months.

STEVE CANNANE: OK, so if it takes six months, we're talking about a period of time up to about
three years from the beginning of 2009 when the whistleblowers first raised these problems about
security checks. That's a very long time for embassies and for military bases to have potential
flaws in the security checks.

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, we will get to the bottom of who's been advised, what the percentage of
problems have been with respect to these vettings, but at the moment we're still waiting on the
Inspector-General's report to understand the length and breadth of the problem.

Bear in mind the Defence Department is now somewhat removed from the picture. It's now with the
Inspector-General and she's going to provide a report soon, we trust, that actually sets the
parameters of how big this problem really is.

STEVE CANNANE: Given these whistleblowers said that they were under direct instruction from senior
Defence staff to fabricate security checks on civilian and military personnel, do you expect heads
to roll?

DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, fabricate is an interesting word. I think we do get to what might be termed
fabrication, but what they were using were workarounds, and that is, because they were in a hurry
they put fictitious addresses and birth dates and other things like that into what were
computer-sensitive forms.

Now, that's a high-risk task at the best of times and it's obviously got away from everybody.
There's a significant problem with resourcing and oversight here that has led to this problem.

But we're going to find out from the Inspector-General the depth and length and breadth of how
severe this problem is and I think it's very severe.

STEVE CANNANE: David Johnston, we'll have to leave it there, but thanks very much for talking to
us.

DAVID JOHNSTON: Thank you, Steve.