LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Later this week, Australia’s current spy chief, ASIO director-general David Irvine, will step down after five years in the job. He joined me from Canberra for his final interview.

Mr Irvine, thank you very much for joining us.


LEIGH SALES: You step down this week as ASIO boss. It’s also the 13th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Do you believe that the world today is more or less safe from terrorism than in 2001?

DAVID IRVINE: I certainly believe that terrorism is continuing to be a serious problem affecting many parts of the world, including countries of the West. There are terrorist attacks taking place in many parts of the Middle East, in Africa, in parts of Asia and we are certainly aware of people wanting to conduct terrorist attacks in the West and in Australia.

So I think whether it’s a little bit more or a little bit less than 2001, I think we are facing a persistent threat.

LEIGH SALES: Why, over the past 13 years, then, have governments spent billions of dollars, gone to wars, inadvertently bombed civilians, expanded surveillance powers, curtailed civil liberties if the end result is that terrorism is still a very serious threat, almost as serious as it was back then?

DAVID IRVINE: Because it, because it is such a persistent threat and all of the activities that you’ve mentioned have in fact probably served to contain its growth beyond what I’m very concerned about at the moment.

Here in Australia we’ve been, I think, very lucky in that we have avoided an attack on Australian soil – although, of course, we have lost over 100 Australians killed in terrorist incidents overseas. But we’ve also had to stop terrorist attacks occurring here in Australia, which we’ve done. And we are now, I think, having gone through a period where the threat has actually been building here in Australia over the last, certainly over the last year or so and I’m actually a lot more concerned. I would say I have an elevated level of concern.

LEIGH SALES: Why, if the threat has been building over the past year, is the terrorist threat level still just at medium and unchanged?

DAVID IRVINE: Um, well, the notion of a threat level at medium is that an attack could – is possible and could occur. If we raise it to high, it means an attack is likely.

I would say that, at the moment, it is at a very elevated level of medium and I’m certainly contemplating very seriously the notion of lifting it higher, because of the numbers of people that we are now having to be concerned about in Australia, because of the influence of Syria and Iraq on young Australians, both in terms of going to those places to fight but also in terms of what they are doing here in Australia with a potential intent to attack.

LEIGH SALES: As I mentioned earlier, you finish in the position at the end of this week. Would you consider elevating that level within the next few days before you leave?

DAVID IRVINE: It’s something that we in ASIO are actively considering.

LEIGH SALES: Last night on the program we featured as story about foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. You just mentioned the same issue. We reported on an Australian national named Mohammad Ali Baryalei, who is basically the middle man getting Australian fighters and jihadists to the region. The Federal Police today confirmed that he is the subject of an arrest warrant. He’s currently based in Syria, although he is an Australian national, as I mentioned. Does that place him beyond the reach of Australian law?

DAVID IRVINE: Well, certainly while he’s active in Iraq at the moment, the arrest of such a person would obviously be very difficult. But he’s not the only person we’re concerned about and there are many others, whom obviously I will not name, who are over there fighting with the ISIL groups, with Jabhat al-Nusra and with some other groups. And they are of concern because, if they come home, they come home with training and with potentially increased intent.

LEIGH SALES: How many of them do you believe have returned home so far?

DAVID IRVINE: I don’t give an exact number on that. I’m continuing to say tens of Australians have come home.

LEIGH SALES: And when you say – just to press you on that a little further – when you say tens, are you talking more towards 20 or are you talking more towards 100?

DAVID IRVINE: I’m not going to satisfy you entirely on that, Leigh, but certainly more than 20.

LEIGH SALES: Are all of those people under active surveillance by Australian authorities?

DAVID IRVINE: I’m not going to say that, either, but you can rest assured that the Australian authorities know what they’re looking at and are taking very appropriate steps to monitor the situation. And you can also be assured that if we see something developing or, in fact, evidence of a crime already having been committed, then we’re going to move quickly to nip that in the bud.

And I guess the other thing to say is that in recent, certainly in recent months we’ve actually had quite heightened operational activity because of the numbers of people involved and so on. And the Government has recently given us additional resources to try to cope with that increased problem.

LEIGH SALES: Australia’s expected to shortly assist the US in mounting an attack against the terrorist group Islamic State. Could this action make Australians more vulnerable to a domestic terrorist attack?

DAVID IRVINE: That’s a sort of a popular line that you hear. But the fact is that Australia has been named as a terrorist target in Al Qaeda publications and the like for a number of years. And current Al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIL propaganda and talk is of continuing to conduct terrorist attacks in the West, including in Australia. So we do have to be concerned.

LEIGH SALES: One of the phases of the US-led mission against Islamic State is expected to be arming militia groups willing to fight IS. How does one determine what a moderate militia is, what a safe militia is to provide with weapons, given that, as Tony Abbott once said, the Syrian conflict, for example, is “baddies versus baddies”?

DAVID IRVINE: I think governments have to make judgements based on their assessment of the relative acceptability, if you like, of various groups.

LEIGH SALES: Do you think it’s wise to arm militias in that region?

DAVID IRVINE: Governments will make decisions based on their end objectives and I think president Obama has talked about certainly degrading and containing ISIL and ISIL’s expansion. Governments will use what tools are available to do that.

LEIGH SALES: Let’s move to cyber terrorism and cyber espionage. You recently said that we’re seeing growth in espionage and foreign interference against Australia. Why is that happening?

DAVID IRVINE: Partly because the technology is now there and it’s universally available and it’s certainly available to nation states in a way that it wasn’t available five or 10 or 15 years ago. We are dependent much more on the internet for our daily lives and that dependence creates vulnerabilities.

LEIGH SALES: Is the chief cyber espionage threat from China?

DAVID IRVINE: Um, we do not ever name particular countries but the cyber espionage threat is a universal phenomenon and not limited to one country.

LEIGH SALES: We know that the blueprint for the communications and security systems for the new ASIO headquarters in Canberra was stolen by cyber hackers operating through a server in China. Will that building ever be occupied? Or has it now been rendered useless for ASIO purposes?

DAVID IRVINE: Leigh, you might know that but I don’t. I am very satisfied that the security arrangements in the new ASIO building are up to standard and of the standard required for that sort of building. There’s been a lot of talk about what people may or may not have done but I’m very confident that, as ASIO moves in the building from about now onwards, that it will be a secure and safe building for ASIO and for national Government secrets.

LEIGH SALES: And just finally, Mr Irvine: as you finish your five years at ASIO, what do you consider to be your legacy?

DAVID IRVINE: I think that Australia has done – and it’s not just ASIO that’s done it but ASIO and law enforcement – have, I think, done a very credible job in the counterterrorism area and I think the people who work for law enforcement and work for ASIO can be quite proud of what we’ve done.

The thing that sort of stops me from saying much more about it is that we cannot give you absolute guarantees that we can remain as protected as we’ve fortunately been so far into the future. And if there is a legacy, then I hope it’s an organisation that will be able to deal with the issues into the future.

LEIGH SALES: Mr Irvine, thank you very much for your time tonight and all the best for your retirement.

DAVID IRVINE: Thank you very much, Leigh.