Aussie spy boss issues rare warning

 

The boss of Australia's top foreign spy agency has warned she leads an "impossible game" fighting terrorists and cyber criminals and declared "not all Australians are the good guys".

In a rare speech, the Australian Signals Directorate's new chief Rachel Noble insists the agency has never and will never be involved in the "mass surveillance" of Australia's own citizens, as the Morrison Government mounts the case for expanded powers.

But the nation's first female intelligence agency director - who also reveals in the speech she rose through the ranks to the organisation after her early role as a codebreaker - will argue Australians need to be clear-headed about the threat.

"I'm sorry if this is news to you, but not all Australians are the good guys,'' Ms Noble said.

"Some Australians are agents of a foreign power. Some Australians are terrorists. Some Australians take up weapons and level them at us. Some Australians are spies who are cultivated by international powers and are not on our side."

The secretive spy agency she leads is tasked with intercepting foreign signals intelligence and fighting cyber attacks under its motto "reveal their secrets, protect our own",

But there are growing calls for its powers to be expanded at home.

Australian Signals Directorate HQ. Picture: Supplied
Australian Signals Directorate HQ. Picture: Supplied

Speaking at the Australian National University (ANU) National Security College on Tuesday, Ms Noble's address is titled: Long Histories - Short Memories: the Transparently Secret ASD in 2020.

Ms Noble said some of the ASD's capabilities were unique in the world, and "expensive and precious".

"They give us insight into the threats posed to our great country and that of our close allies,'' she said.

"As our Defence Minister recently warned, nations are increasingly employing coercive tactics that fall below the threshold of armed conflict.

"Cyber attacks, foreign interference and economic pressure seek to exploit the grey area between peace and war. In the grey zone, when the screws are tightened, influence becomes interference, economic co-operation becomes coercion, and investment becomes entrapment."

But the organisation has been at the centre of controversy in recent years in Canberra after the police raid on News Corp Australia journalist Annika Smethurst's home after she wrote a story about the push to expand the agency's powers.

The original story featured photographs of top-secret correspondence marked AUSTEO - for Australian Eyes Only.

It revealed the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, had written to Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty outlining a plan to potentially allow government hackers to "proactively disrupt and covertly remove" onshore cyber threats by "hacking into critical ­infrastructure".

Rachel Noble is the Director-General of the Australian Signals Directorate. She was appointed to the position in February 2020. Picture: Rob Little
Rachel Noble is the Director-General of the Australian Signals Directorate. She was appointed to the position in February 2020. Picture: Rob Little

When the story was published, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton described the idea that Australia's spy agencies would access emails and bank records without a trace as "nonsense", but confirmed discussions about the powers were ongoing.

"If we had a capacity to disrupt, for example, the live streaming of children being sexually exploited, would we explore ways that we could do that within the law? Of course we would,'' Mr Dutton said.

The original report also enraged the Department chief Mike Pezzullo, who told Senate estimates the proposed reforms related to cybercrime, not mass surveillance.

"Without confirming or denying the existence or content of the specific documents which the correspondent claims to have seen, I can inform this committee that I have not proposed, nor would I ever propose, that ASD's powers be expanded in the way described in this false reporting," he said.

"The only matter in issue, in terms of potential new powers and functions, as the Minister for Home Affairs has since indicated, is whether ASD's capabilities could and should be employed in the disruption of cybercrime where the whole, or parts, of the relevant cyber network are hosted on Australian telecommunications infrastructure."

Ms Noble echoes those denials in today's speech about the ASD's powers to mount surveillance at home.

The ASD is tasked with protecting Australia’s secrets. Picture: Supplied
The ASD is tasked with protecting Australia’s secrets. Picture: Supplied

She argues the agency does have existing powers to monitor Australians but only under strict guidelines, including when lives or national security are at risk.

"I want to underscore this point when it comes to intelligence collection and cyber offensive operations, ASD is a foreign intelligence agency," she said.

"It is a matter for ASIO to concern itself with Australians who may pose a threat to our way of life.

"ASD cannot, under law, conduct mass surveillance on Australians."

In today's speech Ms Noble also argues that while transparency is important, some aspects of the ASD's operations should remain secret.

"There is good reason though why the question of how we gather this intelligence is kept secret,'' she said.

"If our adversaries know for certain how we are going about it, they will almost certainly take steps to prevent us from doing so. Just like we would do.

"We want them to think that we are their worst nightmare in the hope that they will be deterred from their actions in the first place. Silence has forever been a part of courage".

Originally published as Aussie spy boss issues rare warning



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