The objective of the audit was to assess whether:

a) the AGD effectively manages the operation of the NSH; and
b) the AFP and ASIO have effective procedures in place to deal with incoming referrals from the NSH.



The National Security Hotline (NSH) is a 24 hour per day 365 days per year call centre, located within the Attorney-General's Department (AGD), which allows members of the public to pass on to authorities information relating to national security and, in particular, terrorism. It was established in December 2002 as part of the then Government's response to increased acts of terrorism around the world, including the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.

Since its establishment, the NSH has received more than 140 000 calls and its operational costs have averaged $2.5 million per year.

Details from those calls which contain specific information (as opposed to calls seeking information or reassurance) are forwarded to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the relevant state or territory police force. Those agencies are responsible for assessing and evaluating the information and deciding what, if any, action should be taken.

Audit Objective

The objective of the audit was to assess whether:

a) the AGD effectively manages the operation of the NSH; and

b) the AFP and ASIO have effective procedures in place to deal with incoming referrals from the NSH.

Overall Conclusion

The NSH is an important means by which members of the public can pass on information to the government or receive assurance about national security issues. Since its inception in 2002, the NSH has received more than 140 000 calls. About half of all calls received are from people reporting something that concerns them and these calls are passed to the NSH's stakeholder agencies (the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the eight state and territory police forces). These stakeholder agencies have informed the ANAO that they place significant value on the information that they receive via the NSH as it contributes to their operations, investigations and intelligence.

The ANAO concluded that the Attorney-General's Department effectively manages the operation of the NSH. The NSH was conceived, designed, constructed and implemented in a short period of time in 2002. Since then, the NSH has worked to improve the IT system, institute sound ‘surge' and contingency arrangements and develop innovative and effective staff training. The ANAO identified some opportunities for administrative improvement which were adopted by the AGD.

The ANAO also concluded that both ASIO and the AFP have developed sound procedures to evaluate and assess incoming referrals from the NSH. However, there were opportunities for improvement in the practical application of the procedures. In relation to calls where a decision was made to take no further action, until recently ASIO did not document the reasons for such a decision but it commenced doing so in January 2010. While the AFP's procedures did call for the documentation of reasons for taking no further action on particular calls, the ANAO's testing of a random sample of 359 NSH calls showed that this was not generally done.

Based on its testing, the ANAO concluded that with respect to those calls which were identified as warranting further action or investigation, ASIO's documentation was robust, while the AFP's was poor.

Each of the three auditees responded promptly to issues that arose during the audit. Most significantly, the NSH quickly rectified a technical issue in the NSH database that was preventing ASIO from receiving all calls and ASIO instituted a daily reconciliation process to ensure that all calls received were assessed. The AFP also reviewed its processes and implemented a weekly quality control process to ensure officers properly document all calls received. The changes to administration that have been made by each agency will enhance the NSH's usefulness and contribute to making sure that no call is overlooked.

As a consequence of the auditees' responsiveness in resolving issues as raised during the course of the audit, it has not been necessary for the ANAO to make any recommendations in this report.

Key findings by chapter

Management of the National Security Hotline (Chapter 2)

The NSH has flexible staffing practices which allow it to vary the number of staff on duty according to call traffic and has explored ways in which it can use staff on other administrative duties in order to minimise unproductive downtime. Staff training is structured and relevant and, in particular, the NSH has made innovative use of electronic learning (or e learning) to allow for the training of staff in locations other than Canberra.

The NSH database is well-designed and fit for purpose. It is mature and has well-developed, regularly tested, contingency arrangements to deal with both a disaster at its primary site and with a sudden influx of calls which would result from a major terrorist or other incident, especially one occurring in Australia. The NSH has also put in place effective arrangements for liaison with its stakeholders, who all advised the ANAO that they felt that their feedback and suggestions for improvements were taken seriously by the NSH.

The ANAO identified opportunities for improvement in the NSH's handling of calls involving allegations of unlawful or improper behaviour by officers of the stakeholder agencies, which the NSH terms ‘ethical standards' calls. Given the sensitivity of calls including such allegations, they are not passed to the usual contact points in the stakeholder agencies, but are referred to the relevant part of the stakeholder agency for investigation. Any other information contained in the call, which could be of security interest, is thus not available generally to the stakeholder agency. The ANAO found that the NSH did not have a routine process in place to follow up on such calls to ascertain whether they could be released. The NSH has moved promptly to rectify this shortcoming and has also developed a protocol with ASIO to ensure that ‘ethical standards' calls are promptly passed to ASIO so that they can be assessed for any national security implications.

ASIO's and the AFP's handling of NSH calls (Chapter 3)

The stakeholder agencies who have the responsibility to assess and evaluate NSH calls should be able to demonstrate that they received every NSH call and also that every call was the subject of a decision about what action should be taken with respect to it (which includes taking no action) and the reason for that decision.

Both ASIO and the AFP initially advised that they both receive every NSH call. In fact, the ANAO's analysis showed that since 2002, there have been more than 3000 NSH calls that were not referred to ASIO. The reason for this was that for these calls, a particular ‘incident type' box had been ticked by NSH operators, the unintended consequence of which was to prevent the calls in question being referred to ASIO. Once the ANAO identified this problem, the NSH moved quickly to rectify it and ASIO assessed and evaluated the 52 calls received in 2009 which were not forwarded to it and found that one was of sufficient security interest to warrant being classified as a ‘Lead'.

Both ASIO and the AFP have documented procedures that provide direction for staff responsible for evaluating and assessing NSH calls. The ANAO assessed the extent to which staff of the two organisations complied with those procedures for a random sample of 359 calls received by the NSH in 2009. This substantive testing showed that:

  • four calls were not assessed or evaluated by ASIO for reasons it was not able to explain, but was most likely due to human error;
  •  two calls were not received by ASIO (these were part of the more than 3000 calls that were not sent to ASIO by the NSH); and
  • the AFP received all 359 calls, but its documentation of the assessment and evaluation of the calls did not comply with its stated procedures.

Both agencies acknowledged that there was scope for improvement in their handling of NSH calls and took prompt action in this regard.

Utility of the National Security Hotline (Chapter 4)

It is difficult to objectively assess the value of the NSH in a traditional cost-benefit sense. This is because the relationship between a particular call to the NSH and a firm outcome, such as an arrest or prosecution for terrorism or other criminal offence, is unlikely to be clear-cut. Rather, calls to the NSH would usually contribute to stakeholder agencies' operations, investigations or intelligence.

The testing program carried out by the ANAO showed that of the 359 NSH calls examined, the AFP considered 20 per cent of them to have sufficient value to warrant referral to other parts of the organisation for further evaluation or action. Of the same sample, ASIO classified 8.3 per cent as ‘Leads', meaning that they were also referred to other parts of the organisation for further evaluation or action.

The clearest endorsement of the utility of the NSH comes from its stakeholder agencies. A highly classified joint 2009 paper prepared by ASIO and the AFP contains specific examples of how individual NSH calls have contributed to their investigations, intelligence and operations. The paper notes the work involved in assessing and evaluating NSH calls, but is strongly supportive of it.

Although the state and territory police forces were initially opposed to the establishment of the NSH, an ANAO survey of them in late 2009 showed that they all consider the NSH as being valuable, with four stating that it was ‘extremely valuable'.