A criminal syndicate was tipped off to a covert operation after federal law enforcement staff shared photos of an intercepted shipping container with more than 400 public servants across multiple agencies.
The blunder compromised the investigation, prompted a multi-agency corruption investigation and led to written warnings to the heads of the Department of Home Affairs, the federal police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.
Details of the episode are revealed in the latest annual report of the former law enforcement corruption watchdog, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (Aclei).
Aclei said a shipping container imported by a criminal syndicate had been intercepted at an examination facility in 2020. The container was to be used as part of a covert operation targeting the syndicate.
Law enforcement staff, however, took photos of the container and shared them via WhatsApp on their personal mobile phones.
The photos were shared widely with colleagues across multiple commonwealth agencies. Aclei investigators estimated more than 400 staff members were provided with the photographs or with an opportunity to see the photographs.
That led to the criminal syndicate being tipped off about the police operation targeting them, affecting the investigation and prompting significant corruption concerns.
Aclei, AFP, Acic and Home Affairs conducted a joint investigation, codenamed Operation Irwin, but were unable to identify the person who tipped off the syndicate due to the “magnitude of dissemination”.
“The investigation revealed law enforcement staff members were taking official photographs classified at the PROTECTED level using their personal mobile devices and disseminating them through unclassified software (WhatsApp),” Aclei said in its annual report. “The photographs were shared very widely through multiple agencies, including some staff who likely did not have a legitimate need to receive them. This impacted the investigation.”
AFP and Acic declined to comment further on the bungle, including on whether it was their staff responsible for taking the photographs.
Aclei said the incident highlighted the corruption risks associated with using personal devices to share sensitive material and wrote to the heads of both agencies in late 2020.
“As a result of the investigation, on 28 October 2020 the integrity commissioner wrote to the secretary of Home Affairs, the CEO of Acic and the commissioner of the AFP to alert them to the corruption vulnerability of the use of personal mobile phones in container examination facilities,” Aclei said.
Aclei has now been subsumed into the new National Anti-Corruption Commission.
Nacc declined to comment on what was in the shipping container or who was involved in the distribution of the photographs.
The annual report also shows that, in its final year of operation, Aclei received 468 notifications, from which it identified 77 corruption issues. More than 320 of the notifications were assessed as being outside Aclei’s jurisdiction.
It commenced 12 investigations and finalised 48 during 2022-23, including many long-running matters that it sought to close before Nacc’s commencement.
The average duration of the agency’s finalised investigations was 1,340 days, more than double the year prior.
“Five of the investigations closed during the period were over 2,000 days old, contributing significantly to the increase,” Aclei said in its report. “Without the closure of these five protracted investigations, the average number would have been 932.
“While still higher than the previous year, this reflects Aclei’s focus on closing historic matters prior to the establishment of the Nacc.”
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