Australia’s domestic spy agency has been handed control the government’s high level security vetting, after legislation that moved the powers from a dedicated agency and created a new ‘Top Secret’ clearance sailed through Parliament last week.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) said its new control would modernise, harmonise and strengthen security vetting, after warning foreign agents are “trying to work their way into government”.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Amendment Bill 2023 passed Parliament unchallenged on Thursday, creating new security vetting and clearance related function for both ASIO and non-ASIO personnel.
It also gives ASIO command of a new TOP SECRET-Privileged Access security clearance which will eventually replace the existing Positive Vetting security clearance.
Since 2010, the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency has been responsible for security clearances, with some other intelligence agencies and the Federal Police also able to issue clearances.
The system faced questions about consistency, efficiency and security, while the AUKUS agreement loomed as a new strain with many more personnel needing to be cleared for Defence projects.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security recommended the bill be passed with only minor administrative changes for clarity.
The passage of the bill – which means all operations within other agencies that currently have control for positive vetting clearances will be transitioned to ASIO – was welcomed by ASIO’s boss, director-general of security Mike Burgess
“Centralising Australia’s highest-level vetting functions within ASIO leverages our capabilities and holdings to best assess whether an individual is, and remains, suitable to hold privileged access,” he said.
“A consistent approach to issuing and maintaining the highest-level security clearances will improve the mobility of Australia’s highest cleared workforce in a complex, challenging and changing security environment.”
ASIO now views espionage and foreign interference as a more pressing threat than terrorism, and Mr Burgess earlier this year lashed some security clearance holders for declaring their access on professional networking sites like LinkedIn.
“Security clearances are not titles or rewards – they come with serious on-going responsibilities,” he said in February after his agency identified nearly 16,000 instances of Australians publicly declaring they have a security clearance, and one thousand more revealing they worked in the intelligence community.
The management of lower level security clearances from the baseline to negative vetting level two will remain unchanged, with the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency to remain responsible for most of these.
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