Paranoia over the Russian “threat to Australian Government communications” dominated discussions at a 1993 meeting of Cabinet’s national security committee, according to newly-released government documents which remain heavily censored more than two decades on.
The previously secret “cabinet-in-confidence” records reveal Paul Keating’s government was briefed about “foreign signals intelligence activity against Australia” including the activity of “personnel from the Russian foreign intelligence service — the SVR”, which replaced the Soviet-era KGB.
At the time of the Cabinet discussions Australia’s domestic spy agency ASIO was still reeling from widespread suspicions that it had been penetrated by Soviet moles during the dying stages of the Cold War, which officially ended two years earlier in 1991.
The heavily-redacted Cabinet minutes released publicly today reviews the threat to Australian government communications and the state of communications security in 1993, drawing on material prepared by ASIO and the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) over the previous year.
It includes an ASIO assessment of the Russian embassy in Canberra as well as “several other Asia-Pacific countries” whose names have been blacked out by the National Archives.
According to the seven-page document dated 13 December 1993, Cabinet was warned the DSD was “unable to determine to what extent Australian communications may be targeted by these countries”.
Ministers were also briefed that DSD “continues to assess that there is a high level of threat to the government’s communications when they are not properly enciphered”.
DSD also concluded that “there is a continuing threat from hackers to government information processing systems of all types, and DSD assesses that this threat will continue to grow”.