Stay Out Of Jail 101: Phone a spy before breaking a national security scoop

By MARK PEARSON

You have information that police and intelligence agencies are about to launch Australia’s biggest counter-terror operation. Or perhaps they already have.

ASIO headquarters, Canberra. Photo: Maps

ASIO headquarters, Canberra. Photo: Maps

The story could be the biggest scoop of your journalistic career.

Your news instinct might be to rush to publication or broadcast without giving government agencies the chance to shut your story down and without risking the news being leaked to your competitors.

But if your story meets the definition of a “special intelligence operation” under the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Act 1979 then you could face up to five years in jail for ‘unauthorised’ disclosure of information, and up to 10 years if the disclosure ‘endangers the health or safety’ of anyone or will ‘prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation’.

Amendments partially exempting ‘outsiders’ (journalists) were proposed in 2016, but grave concerns remained over the impacts on journalists for ‘reckless’ disclosure that might endanger safety and jeopardise an operation and the implications for their sources.

So what might be “reckless” disclosure?

For that, we look to Section 5.4 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, which reads:

5.4   Recklessness

(2)  A person is reckless with respect to a result if:

(a)  he or she is aware of a substantial risk that the result will occur; and

(b)  having regard to the circumstances known to him or her, it is unjustifiable to take the risk.

When it comes to reckless disclosure, the Australian Law Reform Commission has stated:

“If the offence was framed to cover reckless disclosure, the prosecution would be required to prove that the accused was aware of a substantial risk that disclosure would occur as the result of the accused’s conduct and, having regard to the circumstances known to him or her, it was unjustifiable to take the risk.”

So, whether you view it under the existing Section 35P, or under the proposed reforms the Turnbull Government has agreed to enact, there is a strong argument that the only way to ensure you will not be charged with reckless disclosure is to first phone ASIO.

And that’s exactly the advice I was given when I phoned the ASIO media section and asked an (obviously) anonymous media liaison officer about the spy agency’s policy in dealing with journalists’ queries about whether the breaking news event they were trying to cover was in fact a “special intelligence operation”.

He said ASIO tried to strike a balance between what was appropriate to report and what was inappropriate.

He explained that soon after s35P had been passed in 2014 there had been a number of inquiries from journalists and that his office was not sure whether they were legitimate concerns about whether operations were SIOs or whether it was just “journalists being smart about the new laws”.

He said ASIO’s normal policy was to decline to comment when a media inquiry related to an individual or an operational matter, and that blanket ban made it hard to confirm or deny whether a particular operation was an SIO.

I later sent these specific questions to the officer at media@asio.gov.au:

  1. What steps should journalists take to ascertain whether their story (e.g., terror arrest, investigation, etc) relates to an SIO (special intelligence operation)?
  2. How do you respond to journalists’ inquiries about SIOs when ASIO’s normal practice is not to comment on matters related to individuals or operations?
  3. How many journalists’ inquiries as to whether an operation is an SIO have you had since the legislation was enacted?
  4. How many such inquiries have you had this year?
  5. What steps do you take to prevent/warn journalists about reporting the details of an SIO?
  6. What steps do you take to prevent/warn journalists about revealing the ID of an ASIO officer?
  7. How many instances of either (journalists giving SIO details or naming an officer) have you dealt with, and how have you handled them?

In a reply email, he referred me to ASIO’s responses to questions posed by the acting Independent National Security Legislation Monitor Roger Gyles QC when he was conducting his inquiry into the legislation, publicly released in February 2016.

That submission confirmed the approach the media officer had outlined, stating:

“Media inquiries received by ASIO are managed in accordance with standard operating procedures. To perform its statutory functions, ASIO must employ a conservative approach to media engagement with respect to operational matters. ASIO does not confirm details relating to individuals, investigations or operations as a matter of course. This includes inquiries in relation to special intelligence operations or other operationally sensitive information.

If journalists contact ASIO Media regarding an operational matter they intend to report on, ASIO advises the relevant line-area within the Organisation before responding to the journalist. When ASIO has concerns about the sensitivities around the subject being reported on, ASIO does not provide a public comment, but may decide to speak with the journalist on a confidential basis to provide context on that sensitivity. In this instance, the journalist may be contacted by the Director-General or a Deputy Director-General to explain how Australia’s national security would be prejudiced if the subject was reported on publicly.

All media inquiries, and responses, are logged and retained for accountability and future reference.”

It continued:

“In practice, if a journalist approached ASIO for comment on information they believed to be operationally sensitive, and which ASIO knew to be related to a special intelligence operation, ASIO would consider speaking with the journalist on a confidential basis to explain the sensitivities of the information. A number of considerations would go to determining whether to inform the journalist of the existence of a special intelligence operation, including whether a person might be harmed should the existence of a special intelligence operation be revealed. If, after receiving a confidential briefing by ASIO, the journalist still intended to publish the information, ASIO would advise the journalist that to do so may breach 35P. It would then be for the journalist to decide whether or not to proceed with publishing the information.”

So there you have it, the national spy agency recommends the Ghostbusters approach to journalists wanting to avoid a decade in jail for reckless disclosure of a special intelligence agency: “Who you gonna call? ASIO.”

And we might never know how many journalists have already been tapped on the shoulder and ‘advised’ not to publish.

Related: See my piece from June 22 2015 in The Conversation : How surveillance is wrecking journalist-source confidentiality

© Mark Pearson 2016

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Filed under national security, terrorism

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