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Spying whistleblower "should go to jail": Home Affairs chief

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Federal Labor is urging Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo to show more respect for the media after he lashed out at the person behind a top-secret leak to a journalist, saying the whistleblower should go to jail.

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The powerful public servant made the comments to parliament’s intelligence and security committee on Wednesday, which is examining the impact of security laws on press freedom.

The Australian Federal Police in June raided the Canberra home of News Corp’s Annika Smethurst as part of the investigation into the leaked information.

The story detailed an alleged government proposal to boost spying on Australians.

Police raided the Sydney office of the ABC the following day, over a separate leak.

Labor frontbencher Mark Dreyfus says Mr Pezzullo doesn’t seem to understand the impact his words can have.

“He doesn’t seem to appreciate…the intimidatory effect of these raids occurring, or indeed the intimidatory effect of him speaking in the way in which he did at the hearing,” he told ABC Radio National on Thursday.

“I think he should reflect on how he, as the senior national security bureaucrat in Australia, could show more understanding and more respect for the role that’s played by media and journalists in Australia.”

In May 2018, Mr Pezzullo confirmed to senators he had asked whether his department could help disrupt cybercrime, in cases where criminal networks used Australian infrastructure.

But Mr Pezzullo said there was “no whistle to be blown” in the story that led to the raid on Ms Smethurst’s home.

He said the leak was about creating an impression the department wanted to create authorities for onshore spying.

“That was a complete falsehood,” he told the inquiry in Canberra on Wednesday.

The home affairs boss slammed the person who leaked the document, saying police were “closing in” on the suspect.

“They leaked a top-secret document, and frankly, subject to judicial process and fair process, they should go to jail for that,” Mr Pezzullo said.

“It was designed to play into a Canberra game about which agency is asking other agencies to expand its powers or remits.

“It is completely unacceptable for public servants to be playing in that way.”

ASIO deputy director-general Heather Cook said some journalists had “self-reported” to the agency that foreign spies had tried to recruit them as sources or as a way to gain access to senior officials.

“In Australia today, journalism is being used as a cover by foreign intelligence actors,” Ms Cook told the committee hearing in Canberra on Wednesday.

“This is not meant in any way to malign the profession of journalism, but journalism can provide an ideal cover for foreign powers seeking to hide their actions … This practice is not new, novel or exaggerated.”

Mr Dreyfus said ASIO’s claim was not surprising, but nor was it relevant.

“This inquiry is not directed at that…it’s directed at how to ensure that legitimate journalists can continue to do their job without fear of going to jail simply for doing that job.”

AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin said it was the responsibility of politicians to balance protecting national security with ensuring press freedom.

-AAP

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