The head of Australia’s domestic intelligence agency has described the Queensland government’s accidental identification of one of his operatives as “inadvertent and regrettable”, but says he accepts the premier’s apology.
Duncan Lewis, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, has also warned individuals sharing the officer’s name on social media that they are probably committing a criminal offence.
Lewis issued the statement a day after Guardian Australia revealed that Annastacia Palaszczuk’s office had inadvertently published the name of an Asio officer during the routine online release of the premier’s diaries.
Publishing the names of Asio operatives is a crime potentially punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment.
“The protection of Asio officers’ identities is a matter of great importance to the security of our operations and of course to the individual concerned,” Lewis said on Friday.
“The recent online publication of an Asio officer’s name in the Queensland premier’s diary documentation was an inadvertent and regrettable administrative error.
“On behalf of Asio, I acknowledge and accept the apology from the Queensland government.”
Asio said it was working with the Queensland government to address the disclosure. Lewis praised initial media reporting of the matter as “responsible” in “respecting the protected status” of Asio officers.
“However, I am aware that details are being shared online and on other social media,” he said. “This appears to be in breach of the criminal offence provisions of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979, S92.”
The officer’s name was listed as an attendee of a meeting between Palaszczuk, police minister Mark Ryan, the Queensland police chief, and Lewis.
The diary was quickly removed and the premier’s office apologised for what it said was an “administrative error”.
On Friday, the LNP opposition said it would refer the matter to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP). The deputy opposition leader, Tim Mander, said the mistake was indicative of an office engulfed in scandal.
“They are obviously not paying attention to detail,” he told reporters. “And these are serious details that have been divulged. This undermines the integrity of our intelligence services, and, of course, this intelligence officer.
“We will be lodging a complaint to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to do a full investigation. At best, it would seem that this is indicative of how the premier’s own department is totally inefficient and can’t even get these basic facts right.”
The CDPP is not an investigative agency, and has no investigative powers. It is unclear whether the referral will be transferred to the federal police or another agency.
The Guardian can also reveal that Ryan has since removed an online diary, which detailed the same meeting, from the Queensland government website. His diary did not name the Asio officer in the same way Palaszczuk’s did, but it did disclose the date and the existence of the meeting between Asio, law enforcement and the Queensland premier.
Ryan’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
It is not an offence to name the Asio director-general.
The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, told News Corp on Thursday night that the mistake appeared accidental, but was indicative of the “chaos” in the premier’s office.
“The wheels are falling off the Palaszczuk government, and this is just the latest disaster, but I fear not the last,” Dutton said.
The laws are designed to prevent intelligence officers from being targeted by foreign intelligence services or other actors. The intelligence community says that even the most innocuous personal details about operatives can undermine national security and give advantage to foreign powers.
John Blaxland, an intelligence and security expert at the Australian National University, said the secrecy provisions were introduced after Asio officers were targeted by a vigilante group in the 1970s.
“Since then, the threat to Asio officers has grown and the need for secrecy of identity has, if anything, become all the more important,” Blaxland said.
“After all, we expect Asio officers to help keep us safe by engaging with the types of characters for whom life is, at times, cheap. We owe it to them to work to keep their identities safe.
“As for this instance, hopefully the person concerned is not unduly exposed and their identity can still be protected.”