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Friday, September 4, 2009

Australian Secret bunker prepares for terror

26/06/2008 9:51:00 AM

The Australian Government has built a new $36 million top-secret communications facility in the North Symonston industrial estate.

The project has been carried out without publicity or any public inquiry by the Federal Parliament's Joint Committee on Public Works.

Protected by heavy gates, a high-security fence and an array of CCTV cameras, the Symonston facility is discreetly located at 24 Wormald Street next to the Canberra office of the Aristocrat gaming machine company.

The precise purpose of the new installation is classified.

In response to inquiries by The Canberra Times, the Attorney-General's Department would say only that the Symonston building ''contains staff providing information technology services for the department'' and that they were located there ''due to a lack of accommodation in the Barton area''.

In an embarrassing disclosure concerning a highly sensitive facility, however, information scattered across the websites of the Attorney-General's Department and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet reveals the Symonston installation supports critical government communication systems that would operate in the event of a catastrophic terrorist attack in Canberra.

The new building houses the Secure Services Branch of the Attorney-General's Department, part of the Information and Knowledge Services Group, which operates the department's highly classified information technology systems. These include the Australian Secure Network, a secret communications system that provides classified intranet and email links between Australian Government departments and agencies and state and territory authorities involved in security and counter-terrorism operations. The branch also runs a ''secure gateway'' that links different classified IT networks during a crisis.

A recent job advertisement on the Attorney-General's Department website for a ''top secret'' classified position in the Secure Services Branch reveals that the Symonston facility is responsible for providing ''communications support for the key functions of executive government following an activation of Plan Mercator'', the code name for the Federal Government's top-secret ''Continuity of Government Plan'' that would be activated in the event of a large-scale terrorist attack in Canberra.

The plan aims ''to minimise the impact of a national security emergency on critical government operations and provide for the rapid resumption of 'near normal' government business under alternate arrangements until normal operations can be resumed''.

Plan Mercator provides for the evacuation of the Governor-General, the Prime Minister, senior ministers and key advisers in the event of a major terrorist attack on, or threat against, Parliament House or central Canberra. A vital part of the plan is the maintenance of robust communications infrastructure, capable of operating even if central government agencies in the Parliamentary Triangle and at Russell Hill were destroyed or disabled.

Planning for the new facility at Symonston appears to have started in mid-2004. In September 2004 the ACT Planning and Land Authority approved lease and development conditions that included possible use of the site for a ''communications facility'', ''defence installation'' or ''scientific research establishment''.

In November 2005 ACTPLA approved a development application by property developer Jim Sarris of Westtech Holdings, for a project at 24 Wormald Street described as a ''scientific research building''. A number of applications for amendments to the approved plans were subsequently approved in November 2006, November 2007 and May 2008. Construction started on the building in December 2006 and was completed in December 2007.

Two contracts worth more than $17.1 million went to the DECCA Building Group, of Kingston, for fit out of a ''Network Operations Centre'' and other related work. Other companies involved in the project include consulting engineers Norman Disney & Young and the construction and management consultancy Turner & Townsend Australia. The Attorney-General's Department has entered into a lease arrangement with Westtech Holdings worth $18.9 million for occupancy from December 2007 to September 2016. The total cost of the information technology systems installed in the new facility is not known, although it includes $2.4million to the IT security consultancy CyberTrust Australia for provision of the ''Secure Gateway'' project.

Notwithstanding the size and importance of the Symonston facility, the project was not subject to the normal inquiry process by the Federal Parliament's Joint Committee on Public Works. The legislation governing the committee includes a provision that allows the government to exempt defence-related projects from scrutiny if it is considered referral to the joint committee would not be in the public interest.

The Attorney-General's Department has indicated that there are currently about 160 staff at the Symonston building, but it has the capacity to house 230 personnel. Staff began work at the facility on December 15 last year. The large size of the building including capacity for additional staff indicates that it supports a range of communications and crisis-management functions. Access limitations suggest that it is not intended to serve as a command post for ministers, although that cannot be ruled out.

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