Further organised crime breaches of aviation security ‘inevitable’

The government is being urged to establish a comprehensive review of aviation security following revelations that law enforcement agencies believe Qantas has been deeply infiltrated by organised crime groups facilitating large-scale drug imports.

It has also emerged that the same fears about vulnerabilities in aviation were put to the federal government in a classified review 10 years ago, which highlighted flaws in background checks of staff that have still not been addressed.

A joint investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes revealed on Sunday that a federal law enforcement operation determined that up to 150 Qantas staff are linked to criminality, including bikie gangs, and the suspected infiltration “represents a very high threat to the Australian border”.

Labor’s home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally called the findings “highly disturbing” and said a review was needed to protect aviation from exploitation.

“The last comprehensive review of airport security was some 15 years ago. While the Wheeler review did result in lasting change, the combination of these revelations and the challenges of COVID-19 mean that it’s now time for a new independent review,” Senator Keneally said.

The Wheeler review backed sweeping changes to aviation security, including improvements to the thoroughness of background checks for security identification cards and their consideration of intelligence held by law enforcement, criminal associations and up-to-date records of convictions and charges.

Legislation before the Parliament, proposed by the Coalition government and backed by police, would enable criminal intelligence to be used to stop workers receiving aviation and maritime security cards.

Labor has resisted the laws and, in a statement on Sunday, said the Coalition had “held up the passage of improvements to airport security legislation for five years because they have refused to simultaneously address maritime security threats posed by foreign crew”.

Unions have held concerns about using police intelligence to block or cancel the security cards, fearing people will lose employment based on questionable claims about their backgrounds.

Neil Fergus, a security expert and former government official who worked on the Wheeler review and the subsequent classified review in 2011, said the need for change was clear to address the vulnerabilities that were a “prime target” for criminals to exploit.

It can now be revealed that his classified review of airport security for the federal government in 2011 reiterated the findings on background checks amid ongoing concerns about unaddressed vulnerabilities being exploited by criminal organisations.

“I have been involved in two independent reviews of aviation security in this country and both recommended that this vulnerability in the system needs to be addressed and unfortunately we are still in the situation it seems where it seems the vulnerability is unmitigated,” he said.

“We will continue to have breaches – criminal and even national security – in relation to trusted insiders as long as this issue is not appropriately remedied. It’s inevitable. There is too much money for people to make out of compromising the integrity of international aviation and maritime security arrangements.”

He said the previous reviews had fully identified the problems that needed to be addressed but a fresh examination might be needed because of major changes to government structures in the years since, including the creation of the sprawling Department of Home Affairs.

“Subsequent changes might mean there needs to be a review on how the mitigations can occur with current structures, laws and regulations,” he said.

He said criminal intelligence held by law enforcement agencies had to be properly considered in aviation security checks, albeit with thorough analysis and a fair appeals process for applicants rejected on the basis of the information.

Former Australian Federal Police officer John Coyne, now an expert with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, urged a review of airport security.

“We have had bolt-on solutions at airports since the Wheeler review 16 years ago. And yet the ecosystem itself has fundamentally changed since the Wheeler review, including air mail and air cargo. For instance, people are ordering things online in much higher numbers. And we have had a huge increase in the synthetic drug market, a diversification in source countries. We have had changes in detection technology, financial technology. It all needs to be taken into account. We need a large-scale review.”

“There has been a massive amount of change and law enforcement and Australian Border Force are positioned very differently to when the wheeler review was done.”

Responding to the revelations, Qantas Group chief security officer Luke Bramah said that “given we follow all of the government’s vetting procedures, we find these claims disturbing”.

“We have not been advised of any current investigations of Qantas Group employees involved in organised crime. If concerns are raised regarding any of our employees, we will actively support their investigation and take appropriate action,” he said.

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