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Previous Fragment    
Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee
28/05/2015
Estimates
ATTORNEY-GENERAL'S PORTFOLIO
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation

CHAIR: As of the moment we have only one senator indicating that they have some questions, so I will go immediately to Senator Collins.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Thank you, Chair. I am interested, from ASIO's point of view, in an understanding of how important the programs to counter violent extremism are in the fight against terrorism, particularly here in Australia.

Mr Lewis : I think I might have mentioned to this committee before that I see the counter-terrorist effort in this country as being two sides of one coin, if you like. There is the security dimension on the one hand, which is core business, of course, for my agency; on the other side of the coin is the issue of variously titled 'countering violent extremism' or 'community cohesion' and so on. Again, I might have mentioned that we are not in a position on the security side of the house to arrest our way to success, if that is a way of expressing it.

The secret to resolving this problem, which is a whole-of-society problem, lies in the issue of community cohesion and countering violent extremism. So the short answer to your question is that I regard that particular vector as important.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Have any organisations been banned under the expanded definitions of terrorist offences or terrorist organisations introduced by the government last year?

Mr Lewis : Your question relates to pursuant to the changes in legislation?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Yes.

Mr Lewis : I am sorry to come back again, but we are talking proscribed terrorist organisations—that list which we have of proscribed terrorist organisations? Have there been any additions to that since the legislation last year? No, there have been none listed since the tranches of legislation went through in the third and fourth quarters of last year.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Approximately how many Australians are currently participating in terrorist organisations in conflicts in Syria and Iraq? Mr Lewis, I want to give the rider here that I do not want you answering questions that will complicate national security matters, but to the extent that you are able, please respond.

Mr Lewis : The general number of Australians that are involved in Syria and Iraq: there are a little over 100—a few more than 100; not many more than 100—fighters that are Australian citizens that are in Syria or Iraq. In addition to those, we know that about 24 or 25 have been killed. The number is most likely more than that. It is just that I am unable to confirm more than 24 at this point, but I am confident that there are actually more.

The passport cancellation issue, which you will have heard discussed: there are about 115 passports that have been cancelled in relation to the situation in the Middle East.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Can you break that up to passports cancelled whilst people are domestic as opposed to overseas?

Mr Lewis : Yes; 67 of those passports, by my calculation, were cancelled for those who are here in Australia and 47—that adds up to 104, so my math will not quite add up there—relate to people who have gone and are in the Middle East.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: What, if anything, can you tell me about the 67 that have had their passports cancelled here? What impact has that cancellation had? Has it ensured that they have not left the country or is there other behaviour that we need to be aware of?

Mr Lewis : I think I can safely say that, of the 67, none of them have left the country. So to the extent that it has prevented some from leaving, not all of them necessarily would have left, at the end of the day, potentially. But I am confident that the 67 passports that have been cancelled have prevented at least those who have indicated that they may wish to go away. Some indications are stronger than others, as you can imagine, but I am confident that it has had a positive effect on preventing our young Australians from going away.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Has the number of Australians currently participating in Syria and Iraq been increasing or decreasing over recent months?

Mr Lewis : After a fairly brisk increase in the second, third and, to an extent, the fourth quarter last year, you might recall, I think in about October time, at this committee we were talking about something like 70 Australians being away. We are now up to 100. And I did mention at the last sitting of this committee that some of that difference between 70 and 100 are indeed young Australians whom we have discovered to be there that we did not know before. So they are not necessarily a net increase of exodus from Australia. I would describe the numbers currently as going up very slowly but in an arithmetic sort of way. They are just ticking over and probably increasing in very small numbers. It is going up, but it is a very gentle rise.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Is that a gentle rise in the number of women as well or has that shifted?

Mr Lewis : I cannot be specific about the numbers. I think last time you and I had a discussion on this at the last meeting of this committee I said there were between 30 and 40 women that are involved in this. Some of them are in the Middle East; some of them are back. I am not sure that I am able to give you a breakdown of which ones are which. I think last time I might have speculated it could have been about half and half, but I am not absolutely sure of those figures.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: When you are referring to the women that are here rather than in the Middle East that are involved, what do you mean?

Mr Lewis : They would be counted among the number of between 150 and 160 Australians whom we categorise as being supportive of ISIL. That support goes to either fundraising and/or recruiting and/or exhortation of others to become involved in the movement.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Is there a difference between recruiting and exhortation of others to participate?

Mr Lewis : I suppose there could be. I would not draw too much of a fine distinction. I guess recruiting is actually getting an individual and putting them into a pipeline and having them turn up in the Middle East. Exhortation might be just saying, 'Why don't you have a go?'

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I understand.

Mr Lewis : I think there is a difference.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Approximately how many Australians have returned from fighting with terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria?

Mr Lewis : Again, we went through these numbers and they have not changed in any meaningful way since the last meeting of this committee.

There are about 30 Australians who have returned from Syria, but they were—I think it is true to say without exception—individuals who had returned prior to the creation, if you accept it is created, of the caliphate, certainly before the declaration of the caliphate, and before ISIL became a recognised entity. In other words, they were young Australians who went away to involve themselves in the Syrian civil war. They were fighting on both sides of that particular conflict and they have returned here to Australia. It is my view that the political agenda, if you like, that surrounded that particular group is very different. The motivations are very different from what we face today.

With regard to ISIL—that is, fighters coming back from the Middle East under the current construct—there have been none. There are a couple that are in speculation—I will not go into the detail, you have seen some speculation in the media. But there is some indication that individuals may wish to come back. Should they do so then you would expect that they would face the legal processes, the due legal process, the full legal processes of this country.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Mr Lewis, I have not followed the media in detail on those cases you refer to. Perhaps it is for that reason that I ask: what can you say about the motivation for why these people want to come back, if anything?

Mr Lewis : I would be speculating, Senator. I do not know.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: They might be needing a shower, I suspect!

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: What do we know about the behaviour of those who have returned?

Mr Lewis : I am not willing to discuss the case load that has returned. Suffice to say that they are being monitored.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: That is reassuring. As I said to you, I think, at the outset, I do not want to take you to areas that are problematic. Please feel free to give me that response any time you think it is relevant. You have mentioned the number who have been killed. Approximately how many of the Australians currently overseas are dual citizens?

Mr Lewis : Between 40 and 50 per cent.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Can you describe what that dual citizenship is, in the main? Which countries?

Mr Lewis : No, Senator, I will not go into a detailed breakdown of that. There have been a couple of figures bandied around in the last couple of days with regard to this, I noticed. Just to clarify, there is another figure that has been used that I think emanated from the Department of Foreign Affairs. The reason there is a small gap between the DFAT figure and our own is due to the basis of calculation. Essentially, the DFAT figure is based on that population which is both in the Middle East and back here, whereas the figure I have given you—

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: The 40 to 50?

Mr Lewis : The 40 to 50 per cent is the case load of Australians that are known to be in the Middle East.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: You are aware, I am sure, of the process around the discussion paper on citizenship. Would there be any national security implications that you might think are relevant to our considerations of the issues raised in the discussion paper? Consequences of stripping peoples' citizenship?

Mr Lewis : No, not that I can think of. The matter of citizenship is really a matter for the immigration department, I cannot comment on it.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I appreciate that the policy measure is a matter for the immigration department, but my question is really, are there national security implications that we should be aware of in considering that policy discussion?

Mr Lewis : None that come to mind.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I would like to ask you some questions about the National Terrorism Public Alert System. Can you advise me how that alert system works?

Mr Lewis : Yes. You might recall that the system that has existed for some years now had four levels of alert starting at the concerning end—extreme—and coming down the scale to high, to medium and to low. Essentially the new system is designed to better modulate—if that is the right word—to give a better discrimination between the particular levels of alert that might confront the community or that we assess will confront the community, so we have gone from a four- to a five-tier system. I will work through it the other way: the proposed—remember that this is proposed; it has not been endorsed by states and territories yet—

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: When is that due to be addressed?

Mr Lewis : I am not sure. The ANZCTC—the Australian New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee—is contemplating it, but I do not know.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Ms Jones?

Ms K Jones : It was discussed at the most recent meeting of the Australian New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee in Melbourne last week, and it was agreed to go forward at the next COAG meeting for agreement by the states and the territories.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: So final endorsement will occur at COAG?

Ms K Jones : That is correct.

Mr Lewis : The five levels are: not expected, possible, probable, expected and certain. The idea, as I said, is to be more explicit about the threat level that actually exists at the time.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: We are currently at?

Mr Lewis : We are currently at high.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: And in the new system that would be—

Mr Lewis : That would translate most likely to 'probable'.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: So that is the fourth level with 'certain' being—

Mr Lewis : That is the third level.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Sorry, that is the third level. What was the one after 'probable'?

Mr Lewis : Going up the scale it is 'expected'.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: 'Expected'—yes. Who determines which threat level to set the alert at?

Mr Lewis : The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation provides a threat assessment to the government, and the government issues the alert level.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: In government, is that you, Attorney?

Senator Brandis: The government publishes what ASIO advises it. On this occasion, when the alert level was elevated last September, the announcement was made at a press conference jointly by the Prime Minister, me, the director-general and the Commissioner of the AFP.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: In that sense, you were, as I think we were discussing earlier, essentially the lead agency.

Senator Brandis: At the political level, the Attorney-General is the minister with immediate responsibility—subject, of course, to the Prime Minister.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Mr Lewis, can you explain to me what the significance is of the threat level being elevated to high? What does that mean? What is the difference between medium and high?

Mr Lewis : Under the old system—I am just looking for the precise words here—'medium' means that a terrorist attack is feasible and could occur whereas 'high' is assessed as a terrorist attack is likely.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: What I am attempting to understand is the significance in terms of the response to that heightened alert level.

Mr Lewis : I am sorry; I do not quite understand.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I will give you some examples from our immediate experience. The response has been the changes to the security arrangements within Parliament House and the role that the AFP now plays there, but I am interested in the response that raising the level to 'high' means in a range of different areas.

Senator Brandis: The Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department can give you quite a detailed answer to that question across government. It is not ASIO's role to shape the whole-of-government response; it is ASIO's role to make the judgement and convey it to the government.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Sure.

Senator Brandis: And we, of course, are in discussion all the time about these matters. But in terms of shaping a whole-of-government response, I think it is fair to say, Director-General, that is a departmental rather than primarily an agency responsibility.

Mr Lewis : Indeed. That is correct, yes.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I understand. Mr Moraitis, are you happy to deal with that issue now?

Mr Moraitis : Yes. I will outline the processes. First of all, say an alert level is set to high. In that case, the first response would be leading various communications activities across the board to ensure that the public is aware of what has happened. So you would have communications strategies supporting nationally consistent messaging by the government at all levels—Commonwealth, states and territories—through the ANZCTC. You would have examples where you would have press conferences by the Prime Minister and the ministers involved, the DG of ASIO, the Commissioner of Police—

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I think this is what we were referring to yesterday, the 12 September—

Mr Moraitis : Yes. In our case we would update the so-called National Security website that the department runs, which is the online interface with the community. We would circulate whole-of-government talking points to all agencies at Commonwealth and state levels.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Talking points?

Mr Moraitis : Yes, so that everyone has the consistent messaging, which is quite important in a context like this. We engage in processes of advising industry and critical infrastructure owners via a system called the Trusted Information Sharing Network—so-called TISN. We also use ASIO's Business Liaison Unit, which has an ongoing role engaging with business and various critical infrastructure sectors. Then of course we would coordinate with various jurisdictions through our National Crisis Committee and the Australian Government Crisis Committee.

So that would be the response in terms of communication, and obviously advice to business will be a big part of that process—as I said, the TISN process for informing owners of critical infrastructure in particular and things like that. So that would be one aspect.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: That is comms, yes.

Mr Moraitis : The other aspect would be that departments and agencies would be contacted by ASIO with advice on individual protective security measures, and individual agencies would respond accordingly. In the case of a department like Attorney-General's, to give you an example, we would be sending internal messaging to staff about this so they are aware of it. There would be circulars involving protective security advice for heightened security environments that would be released by ASIO. We would ask ASIO for a threat assessment of various facilities—in our case, the precinct around our department.

Then in due course we would do various measures to mitigate risks in a practical way—business continuity planning, even crisis management scenarios and exercises. That would happen once we could have the time to do that. We would also, for example, practise our lockdown procedures. This is just normal risk mitigation for any government facility and I imagine other agencies and departments would do the same. We would look at our protective security measures across the board. So that is an example of how we would respond in a scenario like that.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: The other element of the whole-of-government response was essentially the communications campaign to the public at large, to be alert and aware and report.

Mr Moraitis : Of course, yes. In fact, since the alert went to high in September, the National Security Hotline has received, as of yesterday, 24,000 calls in that period. So it has obviously been activated and it has been quite significant. As part of the process, a national security campaign was run in November to support security arrangements for various things, such as the G20 Leaders Summit, which happened most recently in Brisbane. So we would have had various campaigns of that nature, as well as sector specific processes.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: With the public communication campaign, we were intending to alter people's behaviour to be more alert and aware and to report. Is that a fair characterisation?

Mr Moraitis : That would be fair, I think, yes.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: You have just indicated the large number of contacts: are they contacts from the public at large or are they contacts generally to the hotline?

Mr Moraitis : My understanding is the public at large because it is universal, isn't it?

Ms K Jones : In the sense that it captures both of your descriptions there. Obviously, it is generally members of the public who want either to obtain information or to report any particular suspicious issues or concerns that they have that have a national security aspect with them.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: What I am also interested in is how the Australian government adjusts its own behaviour in response to a heightened risk of terror? We have talked about ASIO—sorry, we have talked about the comms, we have talked about the security of certain facilities, government employees and other safety measures—

Mr Moraitis : All those measures, yes.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: But I am also interested in whether ASIO or other agencies conduct risk assessments with agencies and how that might occur?

Mr Lewis : I can speak from ASIO's point of view. This is not a universal answer, because there are people operating beyond where we do—

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: That is why I sought to say 'agencies' rather than—

Mr Lewis : Yes. Certainly, when an agency asks for support in terms of advice on what they might or might not do we are in a position to provide that advice. Also, if we become aware of a particular threat to an agency—if there were something quite specific—then obviously we would go to that agency head, advise them and suggest some remedial action.

I want to stress, however, that throughout the Commonwealth it is the accepted practice that agency and departmental heads, and organisational heads, are responsible in the first instance for the security of their organisation. We are here to assist and support where we can, and we will certainly be proactive where we discover things that need to be advised to those heads.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Did you provide advice—well, I think you did, but we will get into the nature of it—to government and to ministers about how they should adjust their behaviour in response to the increased threat? I recall media reports about how to travel, changing regular routes—that sort of thing. Did that come from ASIO or am I on the wrong track here?

Mr Lewis : I think you will probably find that most of that came from the AFP, I expect.

Ms K Jones : The departments, in cooperation with the AFP and the Department of Finance, provided briefings to MPs and senators. I participated in some of those briefings myself, where we talked about security arrangements here at Parliament House, in electoral offices—

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I think I remember some of that, yes.

Ms K Jones : We conducted fairly extensive briefings throughout the period following—I would need to check the exact dates—but it was following the increase in the public alert level.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: What I am interested in at the moment is not so much members and senators, but ministers and government agencies.

Ms K Jones : I would need to take it on notice, in terms of the breadth, but there were certainly discussions broadly with ministerial offices in terms of security implications of the increase in the public alert level. I would need to take it on notice for the details of those.

Ms Hartland : As a matter of course we do a lot of outreach to departments and agencies, which would take into account that increased threat level. We are doing that outreach on a pretty constant basis with agencies.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Maybe if I give you an example of something from my own experience it will give you a sense of what I am trying to get to here.

We have an internal mail distribution system, and unfortunately at one point in time it became clear that people internal to Parliament House could just put materials in to be distributed throughout Parliament House. When I received something that had not been, clearly, put through the dock and had no particular identification on it—fortunately this one was not an issue of risk—I went back through our mail system and said to them that I think they needed to be wary of this type of behaviour, and it was rectified. We have the hotline for members of the public at large to report things that they think might be an issue of risk, but I am trying to understand what the process is within government for such events.

Ms K Jones : In relation to Parliament House there is a security committee here. The presiding officers oversight that, but the AFP is a member of that committee. They meet on a regular basis and consider all aspects of security at Parliament House and provide advice to both ministerial, MP and senator offices. In terms of advice for practices for individual agencies, that is a matter for each individual agency. Obviously they draw upon general advice from ASIO in terms of the types of threats that they need to mitigate and other practices that they need to put in place in relation to handling incoming material. That is ultimately a matter for each individual department.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Was any advice given to particular departments about whether they should review their security protocols, or in what way they should review their security protocols, in a heightened environment?

Ms K Jones : I will have to defer to ASIO in relation to any specific advice.

Mr Lewis : Senator, I am not sure. At the time that the alert level was increased I know that all government departments and agencies were responsive to that particular advice. I recall, from my time in previous departments, that each of those departments had a plan which would be put into action at the time of heightened alert, and I imagine that individual departments did that. My own organisation did, and I assume that that has occurred throughout government.

Ms Hartland : Senator, I know that there were, but we would have to take on notice the exact nature of it, as the director-general said. There are certainly some departments that asked us specifically for assessments and threat assessments that we would have provided to them.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Would those sorts of assessment have covered issues such as the protocols around correspondence?

Ms Hartland : What do you mean?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: There is a range of issues around correspondence. There is the type of matter that I raised before about it being clearly viable and safe. There is the sort of guidelines we have received in the past such as during the powder threats. Mail handling is one example. The other example I think is around whether threats or other things are indicated in correspondence and how they should be managed. There is a mixture of issues that could be relevant here.

Mr Lewis : I do not think that is a matter for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. As I said a moment ago, each agency has its own arrangements in place. Certainly in departments that I have served in in the past there have been mail-handling protocols which exist in times of what I might describe as business as usual, and then there is a ramp-up process to increase the vigilance and the scrutiny and so forth as a security situation increases. I am afraid I cannot throw light on the specifics of each agency, but I am confident that my fellow agency heads and the secretaries of departments and so forth have standing arrangements around these matters. I imagine that in Parliament House there is a similar sort of arrangement.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: For instance, does ASIO receive reports about concerning correspondence that does involve threats or does that go elsewhere, such as to the AFP?

Mr Lewis : From time to time we do—yes indeed—but are we getting all of them? I would think not at all. If it were of particular concern and of a particular nature, it might be that it would be passed to us, but that is entirely a judgement for those who receive the messages.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I think also, as the Attorney indicated in response to Senator Lambie last night, it is a wonderful matter to consider in retrospect. Were you going to make the same point, Mr Moraitis?

Mr Moraitis : And it is not just correspondence; it could be an anonymous phone call or emails. It could be happening all over the place, and that is the experience of many agencies—certainly agencies I have worked for in the past where you could have an anonymous caller or an email which is threatening. It could be an embassy overseas being threatened. There are a variety of scenarios where you need to respond based on a threat assessment or an assessment of risk.

Mr Lewis : I should add that, in the case of threatening correspondence or phone calls and so on, the first port of call is the Australian Federal Police. It is a criminal matter and it will be treated by the police. It does not come to us except in very rare circumstances where there might be some security intelligence dimension to the issue.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: If I am a member of the public at large, I have been encouraged to contact the hotline. If I am a departmental officer who identifies something concerning—let's say it is not even necessarily threatening; it is simply concerning—where would I direct that?

Mr Lewis : It would depend on your agency arrangements.

Mr Moraitis : In general terms, most departments have a security unit and they would look after physical security and give advice on cybersecurity—a whole variety of things. They would be the first point of contact.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: But are they focusing on national security as opposed to the security of individual staff members?

Mr Moraitis : They would be the contact if a staff member had a concern about an incoming message which was, say, threatening something, suggesting something or putting someone at personal risk, or where someone felt personally confronted in a meeting or they were travelling somewhere—they were crossing the street and someone recognised them as being an A-G's officer because their pass was around their neck or something, I do not know. There are a variety of scenarios that you need to consider. Mr Sheehan is our COO and he would be across this very well.

Mr Sheehan : To give you an example, after 12 September we put an email out to all staff informing them of the decision to raise the public alert level. In that, we asked staff to be vigilant and report any suspicious activity or behaviour to the departmental security unit. We noted for relevant officers releases of particular ASIO documents. As Ms Hartland referred to before, we sought a threat assessment from ASIO in relation to AGD premises, and there are certain physical security measures that we have taken in respect of the building. In recent times, we conducted an internal exercise in respect of business continuity, and those are examples of the sorts of things that are coordinated by the security unit in the department.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Could I have a copy of that advice and the associated ASIO documents to get a sense of the sort of advice that was provided?

Mr Sheehan : I do not have it with me, but we would be able to provide you a copy of the email to staff. I defer to ASIO on provision of threat assessments.

Mr Lewis : Threat assessments are classified.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I would like to move on to the example that I alluded to before. I first want to go to the reference to the term 'Islamic State'. When did that concept in itself come into existence?

Mr Lewis : Sorry, what correspondence are you referring to?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: The correspondence I was referring to when I made the comment about retrospect and looking at the case we were discussing yesterday. You are not aware of it?

Mr Lewis : I am aware of that, but previously you asked me about letters that were threatening.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: No, I am going back now to the discussion we had yesterday about the letter that was received by the Attorney-General and I am asking about the concept of the Islamic State. When did that concept come into existence? When was the Islamic State declared?

Mr Lewis : I will have to check on that. It was in the middle of last year sometime. I might have to come back to you on the precise date.

Senator Brandis: There have been, as you must know, Senator, a variety of names used to describe this entity. When I came into the office in September 2013 and was briefed about this, the terms used were ISIL or ISIS, not Islamic State. The term Islamic State first came into usage, so far as the briefings to me disclosed, last year, and it was last year as well that others began to refer to the same entity as Daesh. I think there are two issues here. One is if it is even possible to identify a date on which the Islamic State was declared by those purporting to be its leaders. The other issue is when that usage first crept into official documents in Australia—either DFAT cables or documents within the intelligence community.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: The reason, in part, I ask is that, in looking at this letter, I want to understand the significance of referring to the leader of the Islamic State as 'Caliph Ibrahim' and what meaning should be attached to that.

Mr Lewis : Sorry, are you asking me?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Yes.

Mr Lewis : I have no idea. I know that the declared head of ISIS or ISIL or whatever name it is going by to be al-Baghdadi. He may be called other things perhaps; I am just not familiar with the nuance.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: This is what I am also trying to understand. It has been put to me that a reference to Caliph Ibrahim rather than the use of the common name—

Mr Lewis : al-Baghdadi.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: yes—is not so much an horrific or something like that; it is more like a recognition of leader. Is that an inaccurate characterisation?

Senator Brandis: I think you would really have to be a scholar in the affairs of sects of the Islamic faith and particularly that sect associated with ISIL to have an educated or even an informed view about the nuance of calling al-Baghdadi Caliph Ibrahim. It is not something that, as it were, would be obvious even to a person who was closely following events in the Middle East.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I am not suggesting it would or should be, but, again, in retrospect I am interested to understand whether that is an accurate description of a reference to 'Caliph' or not. I think Mr Lewis has said it does not hold that meaning to him or he is unaware—

Senator Brandis: I have read a lot of briefings on this in the last 20 months and I have received detailed oral briefings as well. In none of those briefings was the particular significance of the use of the word 'Caliph' adverted to. What we do know, and anyone who reads the newspapers knows this, is that the leaders of ISIL or ISIS or Islamic state—however so called—declared as their objective the establishment of a caliphate. A caliphate—not being a scholar of this, I am using the best information I can as somebody who has read deeply into it in the briefings—might be considered to be a religious jurisdiction in relation to territory. That is why ISIL, or ISIS or Daesh, has a particular character which takes it beyond merely being yet another terrorist group—because its self-conception is as a political as well as a religious entity in control of a territory over which it exercises a religious or theocratic jurisdiction. That is what a caliphate ordinarily is understood to be. The identification in this letter of Ibrahim by the title 'caliph' suggests that he is the leader of a caliphate. However, that is nothing that we did not know already—that is, that the leader of Islamic State considered Islamic State to be a caliphate.

CHAIR: You mentioned 'Daesh'. Apart from the foreign minister, who else uses that term; and where does that come from? What is its relationship to ISIL, ISIS or Islamic State?

Senator Brandis: Again allowing for the fact that I am not a specialist scholar of Islam, of course, but that I have been briefed very extensively on this, 'Daesh', I am advised, is a term used commonly in the Arabic language as a pejorative acronym to describe ISIL or ISIS. So, ISIL is a Western acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. ISIS is a Western acronym, again, for 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Islamic State obviously is a Western translation of an Arabic term, but it denotes a claim to statehood. And Daesh, as I am advised, is an acronym of the Arab words which describe the same entity but, I am advised, is used in the Arab world as a pejorative. So one of the reasons that the Prime Minister, Ms Bishop and other Western leaders have taken to using 'Daesh' is to refer to it by the pejorative name by which it is known among Arab speakers.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Rather than give any recognition to the Islamic State?

Senator Brandis: That is right—to, as it were, not give it legitimacy. Mr Moraitis helpfully points out to me that the Arab words of which Daesh is the acronym are 'ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fil- Iraq wash-Sham'.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Good pronunciation, Attorney.

CHAIR: Which, translated, means?

Senator Brandis: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL.

CHAIR: Okay.

Senator Brandis: So ISIL is the Anglicised acronym, and Daesh is the Arabic acronym.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: In a pejorative sense.

Senator Brandis: But it does, I am informed, have a pejorative meaning. I might say—I think I can say this—when I went to the Five Country homeland security ministers conference in London earlier in the year we actually talked about this. That was one of the matters we discussed: whether or not it was best to refer to this entity as 'Daesh', the way it is used among Arab speakers in a mildly pejorative manner.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Mr Lewis, I understand that you have provided advice on the letter that we are referring to. Is that accurate?

Mr Lewis : I read the letter this morning. I have come to the conclusion, and I advised the Attorney, that it is a simple letter seeking legal advice, from my point of view. It was therefore appropriate that it was passed down to the Attorney-General's Department for a legal opinion.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I do not think that has ever been a question or an issue. The question or the issue is: did it attract any vigilance and, if so, what action occurred as a consequence?

Mr Lewis : I am not prepared to comment at all on the intelligence value of the letter for a number of reasons. First of all, we are seven months down the track, so the context of it is that it is being looked at through a rear-vision mirror. Secondly, and most importantly, this letter, along with many volumes of ASIO material, are currently the subject of the coronial inquiry in New South Wales. I am not prepared to pass comment on the value or otherwise of the letter in an intelligence context. On my reading of the letter this morning, I came to the view that it was a letter seeking legal advice. I find therefore that it is, in my view, appropriate that the matter was referred to the Attorney-General's Department—and that was the conversation the Attorney and I had.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: As I said, I do not think that is a question of contention. I understand why you may not want at the moment to comment on the security implications and the other matters that are proceeding, but—

Mr Lewis : I find the letter very flat. It is a very flat letter. It has not been assessed, but on first examination I find it very flat. But I am not commenting beyond that.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: It is a relatively flat letter. The question that we are raising here is whether reference to the caliph, had it been known, would have heightened the alert in relation to Mr Monis?

Mr Lewis : As I say, that goes to the intelligence value of the letter. I am not prepared to discuss it.

Senator Brandis: The observation I would make is that to describe this man, Ibrahim, as 'Caliph' is merely to express a claim to a caliphate which was a commonplace. That is what ISIL had been claiming for a long time was its intention: to establish an Islamic caliphate. Any reader of the daily newspapers knew that.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I understand that part of that. The issue more is about whether it implies Mr Monis had any affiliation, loyalty or connection to IS and whether that would have affected his security status—and that is the issue that Mr Lewis has said he would prefer not to comment on at this point in time.

Senator Brandis: I think the only way to interpret a document is to look at the words. There may be, because of the interest in this today, those paying attention to this estimates hearing who were not paying attention yesterday, so let us remind ourselves what the words are. The words are:

I would like to send a letter to Caliph Ibrahim, the leader of the Islamic State, in which making some comments and asking some questions. Please advise me whether the communication is legal or illegal. Thank you, Monis

That is the entirety of the letter.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I understand that. For everyone listening, that is helpful information.

Mr Lewis : I might just draw your attention to the joint report between the Commonwealth and the New South Wales governments, which is a public document, that was done in January of this year, where it concludes that:

Monis was assessed by ASIO in early December 2014. On the basis of the information available at the time, he fell well outside the threshold to be included in the 400 highest priority counter-terrorism investigations.

That might just help you with the question you had as to the relationship between—

CHAIR: What was that you were reading from?

Mr Lewis : This is the joint federal and New South Wales government report done by both the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Premier and Cabinet, dated January, into the Martin Place siege.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Could you read that reference again? I apologise for the lateness of the hour.

Mr Lewis : I am reading from page 5 of the summary:

Monis was assessed by ASIO in early December 2014. On the basis of the information available at the time, he fell well outside the threshold to be included in the 400 highest priority counter-terrorism investigations.

CHAIR: I am uncomfortable even asking any questions on this, but are you saying that that letter was actually referred to you and that was the assessment made which is reported in that report?

Mr Lewis : No, sorry I am not saying that.

Senator Brandis: I think the point is that the letter was received in my office, though not referred to me but referred to the department, on 9 October and considered by the department and a reply was prepared which was sent from the department on 5 November 2014. When the Thawley-Comley review—which is the review by PM&C and the New South Wales premier's department—looked at this, it looked at all of this material including this letter, and it concluded that as late as December, so after this exchange of correspondence, it was still the case that Monis was not somebody who should have raised alerts.

CHAIR: How had Monis come to the attention of whoever made that assessment that he was outside the top 500, or 400?

Senator Brandis: Well, Monis was known.

CHAIR: As I say, I am uncomfortable about asking this, so if it is something that should not be discussed publicly. I am just confused.

Senator Brandis: Can I put it this way as I am mindful of certain rather reckless claims that have been made by the shadow Attorney-General today. It could perhaps be said that the identity of Monis should have raised an alert in October or early November 2014, but we now know that as late as December 2014 Monis was not regarded as a person of concern by ASIO. So, the identity of the author of the letter cannot have been problematic if not even ASIO considered him problematic at the time.

CHAIR: I must say I had not heard what the shadow Attorney-General has said—I take no interest in what he says—so that is news to me that he has said something.

Senator Brandis: It is very surprising.

CHAIR: As I say, I am uncomfortable asking this, perhaps I should not and perhaps you should tell me not to ask or you are not prepared to give an answer, but why was it that he was actually being assessed as outside the 400?

Senator Brandis: No, this is retrospectively by the review into the Martin Place siege. Obviously, after the Martin Place siege everyone knew who he was.

CHAIR: But the report says that he has had been assessed as being not a person of interest, but why had that come to the attention—

Senator Brandis: No, he was not considered to be a person of interest. He had been known at an earlier time in various ways, including, as the Thawley-Comley review indicates, some years before he had volunteered to become an ASIO officer. So, this person was in the ether as it were but was not considered dangerous as late as December 2014 and the point—

CHAIR: Why was an assessment made in December 2014?

Senator Brandis: It was not. That is the point.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Someone has reviewed everything available on the record into the assessment—

Mr Lewis : At the time of the attack he had not been assessed as being a person of security interest.

CHAIR: And that was assessed after the attack?

Mr Lewis : No, before the attack that was the situation he was in. Monis has been known to ASIO, as you are aware,—and I will be careful here—and he had been known to us for many, many years. He had been assessed on a number of occasions and on each occasion, as laid out in this report, we had come to the assessment that he was not a threat to security. Many other issues but not of threat to security.

CHAIR: I can guess what you might have thought of him.

Senator Brandis: Just to close the circle, that was still the case in December 2014, and so obviously was the case in October and November 2014. If I can just quickly finish before you will adjourn, there are two things that might have caused concern. One is the identity of the author, but we know that at the time he was not considered a threat by ASIO. The other is the content of the letter—the content of the letter speaks for itself.

CHAIR: It does indeed. You mentioned adjourning—I am not intending to adjourn until Senator Collins has finished on the basis that, as I understand, she does not have a lot more to do.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Remind her that I am becoming hungry, please.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I am sorry, Senator O'Sullivan—

CHAIR: He has been telling us for the last two hours.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: That is not my highest priority. I do not want to pursue this issue about the implications of the reference to the caliph, because Mr Lewis has said he would prefer not to go further down that path, given other things afoot—the national security implications. Tell me if the same applies to this question, which is: I note in Mr Monis' correspondence, he lists his website. Had this website come to the attention of law enforcement and security agencies in the past? It is, for your reference, up the top under the central banner.

Mr Lewis : I am not in a position to speak about the specific case of the monitoring and assessment of Monis. Suffice to say, I would be surprised—I believe we would have but I will not go into the detail of what we did or did not know at the time. He was a person who had been, as I have said, on the radar of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation for a number of years but had not crossed the threshold at any point.

Senator Brandis: He had proceedings in the High Court at this time. He was a public figure. As you will see in the press reporting subsequent to the Martin Place siege, there is lots of vision of this man holding protests and speaking to the media. He had been initially convicted of sending harassing letters to the parents of deceased Australian servicemen in the Middle East. He was a minor public figure known to the authorities, but that is a different question from whether he was considered by those competent to make the judgement at the time as a threat.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: You raise that additional issue which is, yes, there were other matters afoot at the time. Sorry, which was the court action again?

Senator Brandis: This man had been convicted initially of a nuisance offence, I think it was, or some kind of public order offence in relation to sending harassing letters to the parents of Australian servicemen killed in the Middle East—there were those proceedings. There were also proceedings in relation to sexual violence—nothing to do with national security, but sexual violence, in which he was engaged at the time as well.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Was the Attorney-General's Department associated with any of those matters?

Senator Brandis: Certainly not the latter, and I do not think the former either—no.

Ms K Jones : The sexual assault matters were dealt with by New South Wales police and the New South Wales prosecution service. There was also the fact that he was charged with offences relating to being an accomplice after the fact in relation to the death of his former partner.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: That is a third matter which the Attorney-General's Department was not involved with either?

Ms K Jones : No—again, a New South Wales matter.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: I wait with interest to the answers to the questions you have taken on notice in relation to whether vigilance was identified and what, if any, action occurred consequently. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thanks, Mr Lewis and Mr Moraitis, and your team; and Senator Brandis and your people. Thanks also to the broadcasters; to Hansard; and particularly to the hard-working secretariat who got us through these long estimates very well, and your team. The committee stands adjourned until such time as we reconvene for the two spillover dates that the committee has decided upon, but subject to change by the committee on both of those as matters develop.

Committee adjourned at 18:35