Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

Discussion about the abuse of three Australian passports in Dubai

Transcript of press conference, E&OE

25 February 2010

STEPHEN SMITH: I've just made a statement to the House in respect of the abuse of three Australian passports and that is there for all of you to see.

This morning, I called in Israeli Ambassador to Australia, Ambassador Rotem. I made it crystal clear to Ambassador Rotem that the Australian Government expected the full cooperation of the Israeli Government, Israeli officials and Israeli agencies in the Australian Federal Police investigation that has been initiated.

I indicated to the Ambassador that the Australian Federal Police investigation would have the assistance of the Australian Passport Office. It will also have the assistance of ASIO and other relevant agencies.

Australia, of course, takes the sanctity and integrity of its passport system very seriously. And we will fully investigate what appear to be abuses of three Australian passports.

On Tuesday, the twenty-third of this month, Dubai authorities informed Australian officials in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, that they were investigating the use of these three Australian passports in connection with the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas figure.

I was advised at about nine o'clock on the Tuesday night. As a consequence of that, I requested the relevant agencies to immediately conduct a preliminary investigation. That occurred overnight and the following day, Wednesday, the twenty-fourth.

On the twenty-fourth, about midday, I spoke to my counterpart, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister, His Highness Sheikh Abdullah. And I confirmed to him that our authorities were fully cooperating with Dubai authorities, that we took this matter very seriously and that we would conduct our own investigation.

Last night, in the context of the National Security Committee Meeting of the Cabinet, a scheduled National Security Committee Meeting of the Cabinet, the Prime Minister and I, and other Ministers, in particular, the Attorney-General, discussed this matter. And our agencies have been working flat out, particularly overnight, dealing with this matter.

As a consequence of those activities and arrangements, I spoke to Ambassador Rotem this morning.

Now, the Australian Government makes no conclusions about the investigation in Dubai into the murder of al-Mabhouh. We make no conclusion about that. That investigation is proceeding.

We've made no conclusion about what, to us, from our preliminary investigation, appears to be a serious abuse of three Australian passports, either through forgery or identity fraud. We make no final conclusion about that. We will wait until that investigation has occurred and concluded.

But I made it crystal clear to the Ambassador that if the results of that investigation cause us to come to the conclusion that the abuse of Australian passports was in any way sponsored or condoned by Israeli officials, then Australia would not regard that as the act of a friend. We would not regard that as the act of a friend. Australia, of course, is a long-standing friend of Israel.

In addition to those national interest matters, there are, of course, the interests of the individuals concerned and their families: Joshua Bruce, Adam Korman and Nicole McCabe. And our officials, overnight and today, have been in contact with those three Australian passport holders or their families.

The three passport holders, I'm advised, are currently residing in Israel and their families are either residing in Israel or in Australia. And at this stage, Australian officials have been in contact with either the passport holders or their families. And we, of course, will offer them all of the required or necessary consular assistance.

Finally, of course, on the integrity and security of the Australian passport system, these passports were issued in 2003. Since that time, as I said to the House, there have been a number of changes and improvements. We are very vigilant about the sanctity and integrity of our passport system.

But there is always the risk of passport fraud. No document in the modern world can ever be completely secure from those who seek to tamper with it for illegal or criminal purposes. But we constantly review and update our passport integrity arrangements.

As I indicated to the House, I'll keep the House fully informed of this matter, as I will the Australian public, through you. I'm happy to respond to your questions.

Hang on. I'm not in a rush, so I'm happy to take them one by one.

QUESTION: Minister, by your actions today, aren't you implicitly, almost explicitly, pointing the finger at Israel and Mossad?

STEPHEN SMITH: No. As I said, we can't make any conclusion, either about the investigation, which Dubai authorities are making in Dubai about the murder, or about what appears to us to be an abuse of Australian passports. We make no conclusions about that. We're not in a position to make such a conclusion. We will await those investigations.

QUESTION: Why did you call the ambassador in?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I called the Ambassador in to indicate to the Ambassador the following things: that we had instituted a formal investigation, an investigation through the Australian Federal Police, about what, to us, was the abuse of Australian passports; that the Australian Federal Police would have the assistance, in that inquiry, of the Australian Passport Office and ASIO and other relevant agencies.

QUESTION: [Inaudible questions]

STEPHEN SMITH: Hang on, hang on. I'm not in a rush. I'm happy to take your questions.

In the course of that inquiry, we would expect the Israeli Government, its officials and its agencies to fully cooperate with the Australian Federal Police in that investigation.

I also indicated to him that if we didn't receive that cooperation, then we would potentially draw adverse conclusions from that. And I also, as I said earlier, made it clear to him if the results of that investigation caused us to come to a conclusion that the abuse of passports had, in any way, been sponsored by officials or condoned by officials, we would regard that as not being the act of a friend.

Now, that is and was the purpose of my calling in the Ambassador. I made it clear to him that we had come to no conclusions. But we do want the cooperation of the Israeli authorities in this matter.

QUESTION: Did you receive any response to that? Or are you — do you have a timeframe for getting a response from the Israeli Government?

STEPHEN SMITH: The conversation, as you'd expect in these circumstances, was about five or six minutes long. The Ambassador undertook to relay my message to Tel Aviv. We will also make sure that that message is relayed through our embassy in Tel Aviv directly.

QUESTION: Firstly, just to clarify…

STEPHEN SMITH: Just hang on.

And so the undertaking of the Ambassador was to relay my remarks to Tel Aviv. And I would expect, at some stage, to receive a response to that. I'm not putting a timetable on it, nor am I putting a timetable on the investigation. We want an exhaustive investigation which enables us to come to conclusions.

QUESTION: Just to clarify, the sort of cooperation that you've sought from the Minister is normally dealt with at the official level. Why was it necessary to call in the ambassador and do it if Israel is not the leading suspect in this abuse of…?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not using labels or categorisations. Such is the Australian Government's concern about what, to us, on its face, is an abuse of Australian passports. That caused me and the Government sufficient concern for me to call the Ambassador in. And I did that and I've outlined to you the substance of the discussion we had.

QUESTION: They haven't actually promised to cooperate, merely to relay your request for cooperation, is that right?

STEPHEN SMITH: As I made clear to the Ambassador and as I make clear now, we expect full cooperation. If we don't receive that cooperation, then there is a distinct possibility that we would draw adverse conclusions from that.

QUESTION: Minister, a couple of questions. What evidence is there and how sure are you that these passports have been forged?

And secondly, doesn't this episode exemplify why or show why biometric testing on visa applicants from friends and foe countries — I use the last carefully, well not so carefully, I should think — but why we shouldn't extend that to all visa applicants to Australia?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there's three or four separate issues there.

Firstly, our conclusions are as a result of speedy but nonetheless detailed work by the Australian Federal Police and the relevant agencies, the Passport Office and ASIO.

And the preliminary conclusion that those inquiries have come to and the preliminary conclusion that we've come to is that there was an abuse of three Australian passports, either passport fraud, passport forgery, passport cloning or identity fraud.

That's the conclusion that our officials and the Government have come to as a result of 24 to 36 hours' work. We want to do it more exhaustively than that. That's the first point.

Secondly, there are two separate issues here. There is the sanctity and integrity of a passport. And in our case, whilst of course we are concerned about the sanctity and integrity of other nations' passports, our primary responsibility and our primary concern is the sanctity and integrity of the Australian passport.

And Australian Governments over the years, of both political persuasions, have worked very hard to try and ensure the highest levels of integrity and security in the Australian passport. And we've seen regular reviews and regular changes and regular enhancements. And that's a good thing.

But I make the point, as people have before me, no-one can guarantee that a passport can't be forged or abused. We can't give that guarantee. We work very hard to minimise the risk.

The third point is about visa applications. There is a different aspect of people movement in the application for a visa. As I made clear in the last couple of days and in the House yesterday, we have determined and decided that we need to, for national security and immigration reasons, introduce more rigour into visa applications by biometric requirements, fingerprints or facial scanning or screening.

We're doing an initial rollout. And for the reasons I explained to the House yesterday, I'm not proposing to detail that.

But I also made it clear at the House yesterday, we are not alone in this. The United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union are all moving in this direction.

As the Immigration Minister has made clear, and as I have made clear, we see this continuing. Regrettably, these threats, these difficulties will be with us for some time.

Now, I saw the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs this morning trying to make some link between the visa rollout and this issue. I frankly don't see that link at all. And I indicated to the Shadow Minister, behind the Speaker's chair, that I was very happy to make available a briefing from ASIO and the Australian Federal Police, and that will occur.

QUESTION: Two questions. Can you just clarify, did you flat out ask the Israeli Ambassador whether the State of Israel had been involved in forging these passports?

Secondly, when you want — when you asked for full cooperation, what does that mean? Are you after AFP and ASIO access in Israel, to people, to documents?

STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, I had a conversation with the Ambassador along the lines that I have outlined. And I have not, nor has the Government come to a conclusion about who, what or why these passports were tampered with.

QUESTION: Did you ask the question?

STEPHEN SMITH: I've outlined the substance of the conversation that I had.

QUESTION: There was no direct question, did you guys…?

STEPHEN SMITH: I've outlined the substance of the conversation that I had with the Ambassador.

Secondly, it's now an Australian Federal Police investigation. How the Australian Federal Police deal with that is, of course, a matter for them.

As I've said, they'll have the assistance of the Australian Passport Office, of ASIO and other officials and relevant agencies. How the AFP want to investigate that matter to come to final conclusions is a matter for them.

But I made it crystal clear to the Ambassador that we expect the full cooperation of the Israeli Government, its officials and its agencies in that investigation. Precisely how that is done will, of course, be a matter for the Australian Federal Police.

QUESTION: Minister, over the last couple of days since you first heard from Dubai, has the Australian Government or any of its agencies been in touch with the Canadians or the British, who have had similar issues to this?

STEPHEN SMITH: I was first made aware of this issue or this difficulty on Tuesday night about 9 o'clock.

I indicated to the House, there was an initial approach by Dubai authorities on the twenty-second, late on the twenty-second, essentially an enquiry. Late on the twenty-third, our officials were advised in Dubai that they were conducting an investigation of the three passports.

As a consequence of that, I was advised on the timetable I've referred to and the investigations by our agencies ran into play.

When I was in London recently I had a general conversation about these matters with Foreign Secretary Miliband because you, of course, are well aware of the previous experience and I was there at the time when this was a very topical issue in the United Kingdom.

I know that our officials have had some contact with the United Kingdom officials. I'll have to take the Canadian question on notice.

But of course in the now 26 passports that have been referred to by the Dubai authorities, we now have United Kingdom, French, German, Irish and Australian passports and it would not surprise me if in the course of this matter, all of those countries were in communication with Australian officials to swap notes.

QUESTION: Minister, what happens to the victims of this situation? Are they going to find it very difficult to travel outside of — they're all in Israel at the moment.

STEPHEN SMITH: We are proceeding on the basis, because at this stage we have no evidence or information in respect of the Australian passport holders to any effect other than they are innocent victims of a passport fraud. So we are obviously concerned for their positions.

I'm advised that there is no difficulty with their welfare. But we'll take it step by step.

Of course it is a matter of personal concern, if in the final conclusion it is clear that these people, these three Australians, and it may well be that they are amongst a group of 26 citizens from throughout the world, that if these three Australians are victims, then I would fully expect in the normal course of events that there would be no long-term adverse repercussions.

QUESTION: Are they dual passport holders, do you know?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not aware. All I…

QUESTION: Would that make any difference?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm concerned about the Australian passport and the integrity of the Australian passport…

QUESTION: Are they being allowed to travel however, because you said in the long term, you would expect…

STEPHEN SMITH: They're in Israel. My advice is they are currently in Israel.

QUESTION: Are there restrictions on their movements given that…

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have placed no restrictions on their movements.

QUESTION: Have your officials that have been talking to the three victims — have the three victims explained what they plan to do now? Whether they plan to stay in Israel, whether they're travelling around the world, whether they're there long term…

STEPHEN SMITH: That's entirely a matter for them. Well, that's entirely a matter for them and what if anything —

QUESTION: [Inaudible question].

STEPHEN SMITH: That is entirely a matter for them and what if anything I know, I would not divulge publicly.

QUESTION: You've had a conversation with the — the Foreign Minister, your counterpart in Dubai. What did he say about the state of the investigation and did he finger Israel as a leading suspect?

STEPHEN SMITH: He put out a message that he'd like to have a conversation with me. I rang him and he said he wanted to ensure that I was aware that this matter was in train.

I told him that I was, that I'd been advised the previous night of the investigation in Dubai, that I had spoken to officials.

Officials had and would continue to fully cooperate with Dubai and UAE authorities and that we were working as quickly as we could to come to preliminary conclusions.  Bbut we would continue to cooperate with the Dubai and UAE authorities.

He was grateful for that cooperation and events have unfolded as they have.

QUESTION: Did he name Israel as a suspect?

STEPHEN SMITH: We did not have a conversation along those lines. He simply wanted to ensure that I'd been made aware of the investigation, that there were implications for Australia because of the three Australian passports or passport holders.

Of course, this is an issue that has been very current for nation-states in Europe for a number of weeks so this has been, in many respects, a late addition.

But nonetheless, when we received the advice that Australian passport holders were concluded, we've conducted ourselves in the manner in which we did.

QUESTION: What are the diplomatic consequences of an adverse conclusion, and are you aware that the police agencies of Canada, France, Ireland or the UK have reached any conclusions in respect of their investigations?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not aware that any final conclusions have occurred in other jurisdictions, firstly.

Secondly, we'll deal with this step by step. I'm not proposing to give a running commentary on hypotheticals.

QUESTION: But didn't the Prime Minister this morning say action will be taken in view of that. What options do you have available?

STEPHEN SMITH: The Prime Minister essentially responded in the same way that I have, which is we're treating this matter very seriously. We've made it very clear what we've done to date. We will await the conclusions of the investigation and we'll go from there.

QUESTION: Those preliminary assessments that you received from the AFP and ASIO and the Passport Office, did they make any preliminary conclusions or assessment of whether Israel is likely to have been responsible for the passport fraud?

STEPHEN SMITH: We were focusing on the information we'd received from the Dubai authorities. Our preliminary investigations have come to the conclusion that there was passport identity fraud, but we're not in a position to make any judgements or any conclusions about who, why or where.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say that one of the options available to the Australian Government is to expel the Ambassador?

STEPHEN SMITH: What it is true to say is that I have spoken to the Israeli Ambassador. I've made it clear that an investigation by the Australian Federal Police is underway.

We expect and want the full cooperation of the Israeli Government and its officials in that respect, and we'll take it step by step from there.

QUESTION: If Israel is responsible, how would it effect relations between Australia and Israel?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not going to deal in that hypothetical.

QUESTION: Do you think what's happened already has affected relations between Australia and Israel?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I called the Ambassador in, we had a conversation. I made the Australian Government's view crystal clear to the Ambassador, and we'll go from there.

QUESTION: These three passports, are they the new passports with the chips in them, the biometric data passports?

STEPHEN SMITH: My advice is the passports were issued in 2003 and there's been one or two series since then including some technological enhancements.

QUESTION: So do you think this could happen with the current passports?

QUESTION: Have any of Australian officials from the AFP or other agencies left to travel to Dubai, or are they about to?

STEPHEN SMITH: One, that's entirely operational. Two, it's a matter for the Australian Federal Police, and three, if I knew, I wouldn't tell you.

QUESTION: Is the Australian Government ramping this up? I mean, couldn't you have done it more diplomatically? It's a very public rebuke, it looks like, to Israel.

STEPHEN SMITH: This is a very serious matter and our response is comparable to the response that we've seen from other countries, in particular and including the United Kingdom.

We take abuse of passports very seriously and particularly where there might be a suggestion that in some manner or form that abuse was condoned or assisted by officials of any nation, the point the Prime Minister made earlier today.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, you said you knew about this issue on the twenty-second but DFAT were telling the press late yesterday…

STEPHEN SMITH: No, I think I said that…

QUESTION: …that they didn't know — there was no investigation underway.

STEPHEN SMITH: I was advised late on the twenty-third of February, which is Wednesday. I was told on Wednesday.

QUESTION: But DFAT was telling press yesterday, as late as yesterday, that they knew of no investigation on the Australian side [indistinct].

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm not aware what

QUESTION: Wednesday…

STEPHEN SMITH: Sorry?

QUESTION: Tuesday, sorry, Tuesday was the twenty-third.

STEPHEN SMITH: I was advised Tuesday. Yeah, sorry, I was advised Tuesday, the twenty-third at…

QUESTION: 9pm.

STEPHEN SMITH: At 9pm and the cause of me being advised was because in Dubai, on the twenty-third, officials were advised that an investigation was underway.

QUESTION: Was there any indication as to why the gap between the Dubai authorities identifying passport holders from European countries and then quite a long gap until these three…?

STEPHEN SMITH: No.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, could criminal charges be laid over this?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, let's wait and see the results of the investigation.

QUESTION: In the scale of a conspiracy, is there any doubt that this was the work of some government, some government?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not using or categorising the matter in such a way. I'm sure in this, as in, you know, many other matters, plenty of people will have plenty of theories about this or that.

I'm dealing with a step by step methodical approach to concrete facts as we know them so far as the Australian Government is concerned.

QUESTION: What's the Australian Government…

QUESTION: Wouldn't it be a statement of the obvious that this episode would influence the Australian Government in listing particular countries for biometric testing of visa applicants?

STEPHEN SMITH: I've made the point. I've seen people try to make that link earlier today. I don't believe there is a link.

There are two separate things we're dealing with here: the sanctity of a passport document and the separate issue of visa applications and integrity in a visa application system.

Whilst the two both relate to people movements and border crossing, they are separate. I don't see the link.

QUESTION: What's the Australian Government's position …

QUESTION: Is there any reason to discuss this with the Palestinian Authority?

STEPHEN SMITH: Sorry?

QUESTION: Is there any reason to discuss this with the Palestinian Authority, given that…

STEPHEN SMITH: I don't have that in contemplation.

QUESTION: Minister, what in principle is the Australian Government's position on state-sanctioned assassinations?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, state-sanctioned assassinations is not a policy of the Australian Government. The Australian Government does not have a policy of state-sanctioned assassinations.

QUESTION: How do we view them if other states do them?

STEPHEN SMITH: I speak on behalf of the Australian Government. Other governments, other nations can speak for themselves, as Foreign Minister Miliband has. State-sanctioned assassinations is not a policy of the Australian Government.

QUESTION: Did the Dubai authorities give you any information on what was done by the people who had had these false passports?

STEPHEN SMITH: The information wasn't given to me, it was given to officials. The information, the substance of the information given to officials, some of which I understand has been published on the web, I think that's the case in terms of the 26 people who were involved or the 26 identities involved in this matter.

The substance of what was relayed was three Australian passport holders or three Australian passports are the subject of our investigation.

QUESTION: You said that the preliminary investigations said that — identified that passport identity fraud was the most likely method by which this came about. Does that mean that those three people are not under investigation or that…

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I said earlier, and I made the point advisedly to the House and I make it here again. We have no information which would cause us to believe anything other than that the three Australians are innocent victims of a passport or an identity fraud, and I made that point advisedly to the House.

No information that would cause us to believe anything other than that they are innocent victims of the fraud.

QUESTION: How did the three passports come to the attention of Dubai authorities though and what, just generally speaking, based on the briefings you've had, how did they come to the attention of the Dubai authorities?

STEPHEN SMITH: I don't know that. I'm sure that'll be a matter of discussion between the Australian Federal Police and the Dubai authorities, if it hasn't already occurred.

QUESTION: Minister, just to come back to Jonathan's question, did the Dubai authorities indicate what roles the people holding the three Australian passports played in the overall operation? We've seen video footage of different people doing different…

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not aware of that.

QUESTION: Did they…

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not aware of that.

Thank you. Thanks very much. Cheers.

[END]

Media inquiries