You would barely believe it, and think it the stuff of parody and satire. But this story is 100% factual and 100% true. In no uncertain terms, ASIO has used the apparently “fat fingers” of one of its agents as the excuse for why the wrong phone numbers were bugged.
In a report released by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, excuses were made for certain “mistakes” and “errors” made by staff working for ASIO, ASIS and other such agencies. The IG said that “accidents” happen in relation to such matters.
In one instance, she told a recent audience that “I remember asking a senior ASIO officer when there were a series of telephone intercepts in which wrong numbers were used.” Upon her asking “How can this happen?” she mentions that a range of reasons were given, including that an agent had “fat fingers”.
This matter is, of course, one that affects innocent people, mainly Muslims, and the work of ASIO is used to push draconian actions against Australia’s Muslim community.
It hardly fills one with confidence knowing that people might incorrectly be tapped, watched or spied on due to such incompetence which is so innocently (seemingly) excused.
‘Fat fingers’ the curse of the ASIO spy who bugged wrong phones
Goldfinger, as the James Bond film’s title song had it, was the man with the Midas touch.
But one of Australia’s spies from ASIO might be called Fatfinger, the man with the clumsy touch, after a series of wrong phones were bugged because incorrect numbers were entered.
The intelligence agency watchdog has revealed the mistakes as part of a vibrant defence of the nation’s spies, who she says are human beings doing a difficult job, inevitably subject to the same flaws as the rest of us.
Providing rare insight into the office that has unfettered access to all six of the nation’s major intelligence agencies, including ASIO and ASIS, Margaret Stone, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, said Australians needed to understand that spies were not perfect.
“I know that accidents happen,” she told an audience at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on Tuesday night.
“I remember asking a senior ASIO officer when there were a series of telephone intercepts in which wrong numbers were used. [I said: ‘How can this happen? There’s a whole series of them here.’ And the answer was: ‘It’s fat fingers’.
“We’ve all done that. I know accidents can happen, fingers can be fat … I’m looking for systemic problems, evidence of a cultural attitude that is not appropriate for compliance.”
Ms Stone, a former Federal Court judge with the power to enter agencies’ premises and search their records whenever she likes, said she had a “very cooperative relationship” with the agencies.
The office is tasked with assuring the Prime Minister that the intelligence agencies are keeping up “standards of legality, propriety and consistency with human rights”.
Ms Stone said she did not “second-guess” agencies over their judgment that particular intelligence was needed to protect Australia’s security. But she would grill them over “process, procedure and proportion” in how they obtained that intelligence.
They were proactive in reporting breaches to her, she said, and would also brief her on operations in advance to ensure she was comfortable with them.
She said she held “regular inspections of the records and systems and activities of the agencies”. These were routine but also random, though not totally without warning.
“We could, if we were sufficiently ill-mannered, spring a surprise. If we needed to, we would, but so far that hasn’t happened,” she said.
She acknowledged they could hide things from her if they wanted to.
“We should not kid ourselves – and I have seen absolutely no evidence of this, quite the contrary – but it is possible, yes, that the agencies could hide something from us. I think that’s very unlikely personally.”
She said the nation asked intelligence officers to do “extremely difficult things in a manner which does not fall within the ethical compass of normal rules of society”.
They were therefore quite rightly subjected to intense scrutiny, but that was all the more reason to accept there would be mistakes.
“We must accept that there will be failure. As sure as night and day, there will be failure and it behoves people who purport to be intelligent and informed members of the community to understand why failure is inevitable … We cannot expect 100 per cent success.”
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