‘Still looking over their shoulders’: Dreyfus asked to investigate undercover police safety

‘Still looking over their shoulders’: Dreyfus asked to investigate undercover police safety

12/05/2023

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Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has been asked to investigate the treatment of undercover police operatives by parliament’s powerful joint committee on law enforcement, challenging the Albanese government’s assertion that problems identified in a secret report had been fixed.

This masthead and 60 Minutes revealed on Monday the Australian Federal Police’s top-secret undercover program had been compromised by systemic failures, including outdated technology, inadequate security and a box-ticking approach to psychological support.

Law enforcement committee chair senator Helen Polley, right, made the referral to Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’ office.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Law enforcement committee chair senator Helen Polley on Thursday wrote to lawyer Rebekah Giles, who is acting for three AFP officers and their families in a defective administration claim, to reveal she had made a referral to Dreyfus’ office.

A defective administration claim allows federal public servants to make a compensation claim against the Commonwealth for loss or damage, and for an ex gratia payment to be made.

Australian Federal Police Association president Alex Caruana questioned whether the safety standards of the program were sufficient.

Caruana said the police union had been dealing with the issue of undercover officers’ safety for at least four years and “we are coming into our members’ fourth Christmas where they are still looking over their shoulders”.

“From the stories they have told me, they have genuine reason to worry about their safety. Our primary focus and care is for their safety and their families. We can’t have members going out keeping Australians safe when their own safety is at risk,” he said.

A secret internal inquiry conducted by retired veteran federal agent Frank Prendergast for the AFP in 2020 found that problems in the undercover program were ignored for years, exposing officers to serious and avoidable risks.

Prendergast’s inquiry, which was distributed among select officials in 2021, found federal police systems that support undercover agents were underfunded and badly managed, including failures in cover stories and fake identities. Secret police deployed overseas were obliged in some instances to use their real passports, compromising their fake identities.

Polley’s letter to Dreyfus noted the committee had spoken to the Australian Federal Police Association earlier this year about the management of the undercover program and to the federal police to “obtain more information about the management of the undercover program and the processes and procedures in place for current and former members”.

“In considering further action, the committee noted the constraints on the operation of this committee (that it cannot investigate individual complaints and it cannot review sensitive operational information or operation methods) and agreed that it is not the appropriate vehicle to investigate the matter further,” she said.

“The committee therefore wrote to the attorney-general to bring this matter to his attention. The committee will be seeking an update from the attorney-general in six months.”

A spokesperson for Dreyfus said the AFP commissioner had provided advice to the attorney-general on the AFP’s management of the matter but would not comment on whether the committee had written to Dreyfus.

“The attorney-general has been advised appropriate steps have been taken to ensure the AFP’s undercover program operates as safely and effectively as possible,” the spokesperson said.

Caruana said he believed the government wanted to ensure greater protection for undercover police.

“I’ve spoken to the attorney-general personally. He wants to help, he was waiting to see where the committee lands. I have faith he will be true to this word.”

Giles said the act that established the parliamentary committee contained unworkable restraints, noting that the committee charged with monitoring the AFP could not review sensitive operational information, examine particular operations or inquire into complaints about the AFP’s activities.

“That doesn’t leave a lot for it to do. The parliament could fix this within 24 hours by amending the act and deleting the restrictions,” she said.

“Alternatively, the government should urgently establish an independent inquiry chaired by a distinguished former judge.”

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