Home Affairs keeps a sensitive report on terrorist assessments hidden from public view

A report criticizing methods for assessing the risk posed by terrorists once they leave prison is being kept hidden by the Department of Home Affairs for “operational security reasons”.

The existence of the “sensitive” research commissioned by the department was revealed during an inquiry by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM), which is examining laws that allow terrorists to be detained after serving their sentences.

In 2020, Victorian Abdul Nacer Benbrika became the first convicted terrorist to be subjected to a continuing detention order in Australia after he completed a 15-year jail term for terror offenses but was found to still pose a threat.

Section 105A of the Criminal Code, allowing the use of continuing detention orders (CDOs) against terrorists deemed to pose an unacceptable risk of committing another offense, was introduced in 2016.

Grant Donaldson, who heads the INSLM, told a hearing in Canberra that he had “very real concerns” and that it was “not appropriate” for the department’s 150-page report on the powers to not be publicly available.

The research titled, “Testing the reliability, validity, and equity of terrorism risk assessment tools” was completed by ANU academic Emily Corner and handed over to the department in May 2020.

“I have formed the view that the report does not contain operationally sensitive information,” Mr. Donaldson said.

Dr Corner’s project specifically examined terrorism risk assessment instruments known as ‘Violent Extremism Risk Assessment 2 Revised’ (VERA-2R) and RADAR used by Australian authorities.

A summary of her report’s confidential findings was read out publicly by Mr. Donaldson after he obtained a copy from the department by issuing a compulsory notice.

“The overall outcomes of this research have identified that both VERA-2R and the other RADAR tool lack a strong theoretical and empirical foundation and have poor inter-rater reliability, and questionable predictive validity,” Dr. Corner’s report states.

“There is much confusion as to the risk specification of the instruments that is, what setting the instrument should be applied in, and which individuals should be subject to assessments.

“The lack of evidence underpinning both instruments has potentially serious implications for the validity and reliability,” Dr. Corner concludes in her summary.

“Without a strong theoretical and empirical basis for factor inclusion it is not reasonable to anticipate that the instruments are able to predict their specified risk with anything other than chance.”

Addressing home affairs officials directly, Mr. Donaldson said: “we cannot have a tool that is not an accurate tool being used to determine whether someone is going to stay in prison or not — it’s not appropriate.”

The Department of Home Affairs has told the ABC it commissioned the Corner report to “support the strengthening of violent extremism risk assessment tools used by practitioners nationally”.

A spokesperson said the report “made no mention of either the control order or post-sentence order regimes in Division 104 and 105A of the Criminal Code, and did not offer an assessment or critique of these regimes”.

“The Corner report contains sensitive information that needs to be protected, to ensure terrorist offenders are not able to use this information to manipulate the outcomes of violent extremism risk assessments,” the spokesperson warned.

The department said that after considering the home affairs minister’s disclosure obligations under division 105A of the Criminal Code “the report was not disclosed.”

Federal police back ‘complex and resource intensive’ control order regime

Australian Federal Police told the hearing in Canberra that five “high risk” convicted terrorists are currently being monitored in the community, with another 20 offenders scheduled to be released within the next five years.

Ian McCartney in police uniform speaks at Senate Estimates in May 2021.
AFP Deputy Commissioner Ian McCartney said 20 offenders were scheduled to be released in the next five years. (ABC News)

AFP Deputy Commissioner Ian McCartney told the INSLM hearing that overseeing the terrorism control orders was “complex and resource-intensive work”.

“While it’s still a relatively new framework, post-sentence orders serve as an important function in managing the compounding risk posed by high-risk terrorist offenders to the Australian community,” he said.

“As of November 10, the AFP is monitoring five individuals in the community, with a further interim control order application before the court.

“In addition, 20 of the 54 offenders currently serving terrorism sentences are scheduled for release within the next five years and a further 26 alleged offenders are before the courts.”

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