A former intelligence analyst who suspects he was denied a high-level security clearance because of his links to China says Australia must overhaul its accreditation process.
The former analyst said he was denied Top Secret (Positive Vetting) accreditation when he applied for a China analyst position at the then Office of National Assessments, but no reason was given for the security assessment.
“There is a perception that people with more intense connections – family in China, lived in China, worked in China – are more closely scrutinised,” he told Guardian Australia, speaking on condition of anonymity because of his current employment.
“So then the question is: is that legitimate, is that warranted because of the risk factors, and there are arguments both ways.”
The security accreditation process is under renewed focus amid growing concerns about how well placed Australian authorities are to investigate and assess foreign interference.
The man, who was denied the accreditation in 2011, said it was the reason he left the public service.
“It made me question my belonging. If my country does not trust me, then who am I and where do I belong?
“Chinese Australians are in a quite difficult place already, facing intimidation and censorship from Beijing as well as undue suspicion and racism from some of their fellow Australians.
“China poses major challenges to Australia, and it’s important that we talk about the variety of issues, including foreign interference, human rights etc. But this public discussion needs to be based on evidence, and done responsibly so as to not hurt the Chinese Australian community.”
Yun Jiang, an Australian National University academic who previously worked at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet with a negative vetting two security accreditation, said other Chinese Australians had told her that issues relating to accreditation remained.
“To work in national security, a top security vetting, that’s very hard to get if you’re born in China or have extensive family connections in China.
“It’s not impossible – I know people who have that clearance – but it is harder.”
Yun said each agency should publish data regarding the number of culturally and linguistically diverse people it employs, following the lead of other agencies internationally, such as the CIA.
The Liberal MP Dave Sharma believes security agencies had to change tack to recruit more Chinese Australians and Mandarin speakers.
“This will require a new approach to security clearances. Many candidates are being turned away and others are leaving government service because of this issue,” he wrote in a piece for the China Matters website published this week.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation director general, Mike Burgess, told a parliamentary committee in October, when asked about the agency’s capabilities regarding Mandarin-speakers, that he was “satisfied we’re managing that well”.
“Finding people with the right language skills who can pass a security clearance will always be a problem for us, but that’s a fact of life that we deal with.
“Our focus on learning and development is a critically important enabler to make sure Asio has the right capability and the right people with the right languages and cultural understanding to help us do our job and make sure we’re not missing those threats to security which are problematic for this country.”
The Richardson review into national security laws and an Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report have also addressed issues with the accreditation process.
The government has committed to Dennis Richardson’s recommendations, which included reform to better protect the rights of individuals subject to a delayed or prolonged security assessment.
The ANAO published a report on Monday regarding the Australian government security vetting agency, a branch within the Department of Defence which undertakes the majority of security assessments for the federal public service.
The audit found Defence had not fully implemented recommendations the ANAO had made more than two years ago, nor fully implemented the recommendations of another report.
It also found two instances of couriers employed by the agency mishandling or losing highly sensitive personnel security files in the past year. The most recent incident was determined to be a notifiable data breach and was reported to the Australian Information Commissioner.
Prof Rory Medcalf, the head of the Australian National University’s national security college, called for the government to review the security clearance system.
“The rigidities of the current system, which dates back to the 1950s, can be an obstacle to harnessing the talent of multicultural Australia, or new generations who live and think differently,” he told the National Press Club on Wednesday.
A Defence spokeswoman declined to comment on how many people with security clearances had Chinese language skills, or whether the department would support increased transparency relating to the cultural diversity of those with security clearances.
The Australian Public Service Commission publish an annual snapshot of cultural diversity within the entire public service which does not contain any information specific to individual countries such as China.