Australian Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has slammed the leaks of government information by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, claiming that the two are not "whistleblowers", because the information they leaked was not related to government "wrongdoing".
In a broad speech to the Security in Government conference in Canberra defending the Australian government's use of telecommunications interception powers for investigating crime, the attorney-general said that disclosures by Manning and the more recent leaks from Snowden about the National Security Agency's interception program known as PRISM could cause "long-lasting harm" to Australia's ability to "identify and respond to the many threats our nation faces".
He said that Snowden and Manning were not engaged in "whistleblowing", because they were not leaking information about government wrongdoing.
"Where an activity has been authorised under law and overseen by appropriate government bodies, and where no wrongdoing has been identified, the disclosure of information is not 'whistleblowing'. This is a critical point that is often overlooked in much of the media coverage of the release of classified information by Mr Snowden in particular," Dreyfus said.
Dreyfus praised the work of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in averting major threats, and said that at least four planned terrorist attacks in Australia have been thwarted since September 11, 2001, thanks in part to telecommunications interception.
"Telecommunications interception is one of the most effective means that parliament has given our national security and law enforcement agencies to do their jobs," he said.
"To illustrate the importance of interception, in the 2011-12 financial year, there were 5,928 prosecutions and 2,267 convictions based on lawfully intercepted material. Most of those were for serious criminal offences."
But he said that there is oversight into the telecommunications interception regime under current law, and if foreign intelligence agencies such as the NSA want access to communications from an Australian citizen, they need ministerial authorisation.
The intelligence agencies are currently seeking more powers for telecommunications interception, including forcing telecommunications carriers to retain metadata for up to two years. A parliamentary committee investigating potential overhauls to the telecommunications interception laws recommended against that proposal until privacy concerns have been addressed and drafts of the legislation have been made public.
Now in the midst of an election campaign, Dreyfus gave no indication of whether the government would forge ahead with data retention plans if it wins the election in September, instead saying that the government will "carefully consider" the parliamentary report.
He did, however, slam the opposition's lack of policy regarding national security.
"At the 2010 election, the Coalition were virtually silent on national security issues. Their current policy pamphlet does have a section on counter-terrorism but it consists of only one sentence, which does not give us or the Australian public much to assess," he said.
"I assume from the virtual silence from the Coalition that they approve of the Federal Labor's current policy settings, and the resourcing of our national security agencies."