Border agencies under pressure as plane plot investigation continues

How much do we know about the people looking after our borders?

According to national border protection and security agencies, not enough.

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An inquiry into Australia’s border integrity has revealed serious gaps within vetting procedures and a lack of checks on border employees.

It follows the breaking up of a plot to bring down a passenger plane, with police arresting several men in Sydney following raids over the weekend.

The group is being held without charge under special terror-related powers while investigations continue.

Passengers passing through Australian airports are adjusting to longer wait times and heightened security arrangements, which could be ongoing.

The Australian Federal Police says it will maintain a presence at airports as long as deemed necessary by intelligence agencies.

Assistant Commissioner Neil Gaughan says while the organisation realises the demands of national security, its resources are being tested.

“We’re stretched, there is no spare capacity. We do not have people ready to respond to something. If something happens, I have to risk-manage other activities. It’s like asking a senior police officer who already wants more resources a bit of a vexed question because the answer is always going to be ‘yes we do’, but it’s a matter of priorities across government, which I understand. If we’re going to police more designated airports within the current funding environment, that will mean something else we’re doing is not going to be done.”

The A-F-P merged its aviation portfolio into its protection operations in March 2016.

Assistant Commissioner Gaughan says he’s particularly concerned about staffing in the industry, and who is given clearance to receive an aviation or maritime security identification card, known as an ASIC (A-sik) or MSIC

“We know that individuals with links to criminal groups have been able to gain employment at Australia’s ports, and obtain ASICs or MSICs. These employees were able to exploit processes, procedures, and their access to restricted areas within the airport because of their ASIC/MSIC status – I think it would be very naive to suspect this is not ongoing.”

On Monday the courier company DHL voiced concern over the continued use of paper documents for security and background checks, and recommended a biometric system.

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission agrees the current vetting system is inadequate.

The Commission’s executive director of intelligence, Col Blanch, wants continuous checks.

“Someone may come in to an organisation with pure intentions and work well for five or six years and then find themselves in a situation later on in life where things have changed or they’re related to a person perhaps doing the wrong thing. It’s not necessarily the initial vetting, that’s certainly important to make sure you get the right people in, but people’s circumstances change.”

The organisation has also called for domestic travel to be tightened, to stop organised crime exploiting a loophole where travellers don’t need identification.

Australian Border Force says controls are in place for those who break the rules.

James Watson, from Border Force, says there are disciplinary avenues.

“We have a number of mechanisms to ensure the right people are in the right place at the right time. If we detect breaches, we have a number of options that are available to us as an issuing authority, and that might be issuing a warning, for instance, to an individual or to individuals if they have not complied with the requirements of an ASIC to move in and out, we could issue an infringement, or indeed an exclusion or, where necessary, prosecutions can occur.”