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Calls by the Opposition for an inquiry into a fire in ASIS which destroyed files relevant to the current Samuels' inquiry

MONICA ATTARD: The Federal Opposition is calling for an independent inquiry into a fire on the weekend which destroyed thousands of files in the headquarters of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. ASIS is currently under investigation in a judicial inquiry headed by former Supreme Court judge, George Samuels. That inquiry was ordered after the Four corners program on ABC Television alleged that ASIS illegally held thousands of files on individual Australians that could be used to vet people applying for visas or government jobs. Those files are believed to be amongst those destroyed in Saturday night's blaze. But Foreign Affairs Minister, Gareth Evans, today played down the significance of the fire, and dismissed suggestions of foul play.

GARETH EVANS: There was fire in the DFAT building on Saturday. A number of records, both paper records and computer records, were destroyed, but all data was replicated elsewhere in the building. No data has been irretrievably lost. There are some working papers in process of preparation, which obviously will have to be reconstructed, but despite all the enthusiastic speculation about implications of this for various other exciting events, are utterly without foundation. All data that was there is still there.

MONICA ATTARD: Well Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Peter Reith, told Fran Kelly that those reassurances from Senator Evans simply aren't good enough. He's calling for the Samuels' inquiry to investigate further.

PETER REITH: Oh, look, this is just far too convenient. The fact is that we're in the middle of an important inquiry into ASIS and, you know, oh, golly gosh, a fire just happens to go and destroy all the files. Now, I don't know what happened; I don't know what the causes of the fire were. All I know is that where there's smoke, there's fire, and when there's a dirty, great big fire that happens to burn all the files, then we are entitled to be suspicious about the circumstances, and entitled to demand that the Minister responsible give us a full and satisfactory explanation.

FRAN KELLY: Do you have any evidence to suggest that this fire was more than coincidence?

PETER REITH: No, I don't have any. But at the same time, there's no reason why I should have to accept the word from Senator Evans who just blandly dismisses this as if it were just another fire. The fact is that .. I mean, it's a very odd event that all the relevant files, or many of the relevant files, for this inquiry just happen to go up in smoke just at the relevant time. Now ASIS, presumably, has a proper anti-fire prevention system. It seems just far too convenient, far too circumstantial that we should have a fire at this critical time.

FRAN KELLY: ASIS is held though in a very old building, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade building, the very building that's due to be replaced in a year or so. Isn't it possible that just an electrical fault in an old building like that could happen?

PETER REITH: It may be, but at the same time, I think it's a fair point to say: Look, here's a .. it's a very significant organisation; it holds, obviously, significant material which is very sensitive; and I would have expected that the Government would have gone to the nth degree to ensure that a fire was simply not possible in an area where such important and sensitive material would be held. Now, I don't know what the explanation is; I just want to be satisfied. I think the Samuels' inquiry, which is now in train, should at least have sufficient powers and necessary references to be able to investigate this matter and satisfy themselves. If Samuels is satisfied, then I'll be satisfied.

FRAN KELLY: Why a special investigation, though? I mean, the Government says that the usual Federal Police investigation into a fire is or has occurred. Don't you trust the Federal Police?

PETER REITH: That's not the reports that we've have, and this again just makes me more concerned. I mean, I read in the paper this morning that the Federal Police and ASIO are not involved in any sort of sustained or close investigation of ...

FRAN KELLY: Well, the Federal Government has told me that the usual police investigation into a fire has occurred.

PETER REITH: Well, I don't think the usual investigation into a fire is nearly good enough, and that only makes me even more worried. I mean, this is not a usual fire, this is a fire which has destroyed a whole lot of files at the centre of an inquiry, files held by the ASIS organisation which speaks for itself.

FRAN KELLY: Yet Gareth Evans says there's been no data irretrievably lost in this fire, all data's been replicated. Why isn't that good enough?

PETER REITH: How does he know? And how are we supposed to know what he says is right? I mean, how does he know what's been duplicated, what hasn't been duplicated? How does he know that everything was duplicated, also included all the file notes that might have been attached, or the annotations in the columns? How does he know? And my job is to put the pressure on Evans to make sure that this thing is properly investigated, not just swept under the carpet as an ordinary fire, which he's tried to tell you and tried to tell the public.

FRAN KELLY: It was alleged earlier this year that thousands of files on individual Australians are held by ASIS, which is illegal. Are you aware of whether any progress has been made on that allegation within the Samuels' inquiry?

PETER REITH: No, I'm not, but I mean, the only thing that I'm aware of is that some of those files may well have been the files that happen to have gone up in smoke. I'm not satisfied with the bland dismissive response we've had from Senator Evans. Clearly, certain files have been held; clearly, we'll never know now what it is that did go up in smoke, and that only demands a full and proper investigation.

FRAN KELLY: So what exactly would you like this investigation to look at?

PETER REITH: I would like the Samuels' inquiry, or any other appropriate authority as the Government sees fit - that's a matter for them - but I would like an appropriate inquiry to look at the circumstances of this fire, including external scientific advice and expertise being made available, so that the public can be satisfied that there's not some hanky-panky going on with the destroying of files in the middle of an important inquiry.

MONICA ATTARD: Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Peter Reith. And P.M. has just spoken to the Australian Federal Police who attended the fire on Saturday night. After being told by the Fire Brigade there were no suspicious circumstances, the AFP didn't investigate any further.