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Intelligence blunder: You wanna be Australia's spyboss? No problem, just walk right in

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The Australian Security Intelligence Service, ASIS, has seemingly demonstrated a peculiar weakness in its access control systems.

A fluke administrative stuff-up allowed its Director-General – its most senior and therefore most sensitive role – to turn up and function for five days while he wasn't actually employed by the organization.

As outlined by Sydney's Daily Telegraph, D-G Nick Warner's contract ended, effectively sacking him, and the cack-handed public service's computer systems didn't notice.

ASIS, it should be noted, is one of the organizations that would benefit from the federal government's push for the mass retention of citizen metadata.

Warner continued showing up for work, and that's where the story gets interesting, because ASIS's control systems don't apparently include automatically revoking access to users who aren't employed by the agency.

His contract, the report states, “expired on August 17, and it was not immediately renewed ... The official rehiring of Mr Warner did not happen until Friday, August 22.” In fact, the Tele notes, “documents had to be rushed for approval to Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove to officially fix the oversight.”

And during the interregnum? “It is understood there were no serious interruptions to the work of ASIS … Mr Warner kept turning up for work in that period” (emphasis added).

In other words, just to repeat: for five days an individual with no contract to ASIS was waved through at the doors and given Director-General-level access to its computer systems.

Now it's entirely possible he was recognized at the gates, and then relied on minions to read him the day's briefings. But that's particularly embarrassing, and also worrying: given intelligence operations run on a need-to-know basis, how would Warner's underlings know for sure the expired contract was an administrative cock-up rather than a deliberate removal of the spy chief?

The Register did offer the Australian government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) a chance to explain the lack of access control exhibited in the snafu..

For those with long memories, ASIS is the Australian intelligence agency most likely to disgrace itself in public by leaving a scat in a sand-trap. In the 1980s, its existence became public after some agents on a training exercise decided to out-do any rock-and-roll act's treatment of a Sheraton Hotel. Instead of throwing TVs out the windows, the agents shot the place up. ®

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