ASIO chief David Irvine to step down in September

Attorney-General George Brandis has confirmed that David Irvine (pictured) will retire from his position with ASIO in September. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen / FairfaxTreasury secretary gets temporary reprieve

Australia’s top spy is hanging up his trench coat after five unusually high-profile years fighting terrorism, cyber espionage and leaks from “trusted insiders” such as Edward Snowden.

David Irvine, 67, has told his staff at the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation that he will step down as director-general of security in September, after agreeing to work six months beyond the expiry of his contract while the Abbott government appoints his replacement, according to sources.

ASIO is considered the most important of Australia’s six intelligence agencies because it is the only one authorised to monitor and investigate Australian citizens in the routine course of its business.

Its payroll has almost tripled from 600 to more than 1700 since the start of this century, stretching the country’s supply of trusted technologists and linguists.

Attorney-General George Brandis is expected to seek an outside replacement, as has been the case with each of the past four director-generals. A spokesman for Senator Brandis confirmed Mr Irvine would retire on September 14.

Mr Irvine stepped away from the secretive habits of his profession to deliver public warnings about “Jihadists” travelling to fight in Syria and returning with “radicalised” methods and ideologies.

He has also led a public campaign to educate government officials and business executives to protect their organisations against cyber-attacks, which others say emanate principally from China.

The extent of the cyber challenge is illustrated by ASIO’s $700 million new headquarters, which sit unoccupied on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin nine months after its official opening and nearly two years after its expected completion date.

The state-of-the-art building incorporates bio-recognition key technology, 350 kilometres of optic cable and a centre to bring together the cyber capabilities of all agencies “to ensure that Australian networks are among the hardest to compromise in the world”.

And yet blueprints for the ASIO building’s communications and security systems were stolen by cyber hackers operating through a server in China, according to an investigation that aired on the ABC’s Four Corners program last year.

The next director-general of ASIO will also have to manage the ongoing fallout from the Snowden affair, which has so far forced US President Barack Obama to defend modern data collection methods and provide new assurances of accountability.

Mr Irvine has said he has identified material that may be leaked and has taken steps to prevent other “trusted insiders” from stealing data.

Mr Irvine was a career diplomat who has been posted to Rome, Beijing, Jakarta and Port Moresby. He also authored a book on Indonesian wayang puppetry.

He began his five-year term at ASIO in March 2009 under then prime minister Kevin Rudd. Prior to that he served for six years as director of the offshore intelligence agency, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, appointed by former prime minister John Howard.

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