Ex spy fined over possession of secret documents

By Shannon Jenkins

September 9, 2020


Former spy and diplomat Roger Uren has been convicted of breaching national secrecy laws and has been ordered to pay a fine of $7000.

The ex assistant director of the then Office of National Assessments faced the ACT Magistrates Court on Tuesday, where he was delivered a sentence five years after hundreds of secret documents were found at his Canberra home.

In 2019 Uren was laid with 30 charges of unauthorised dealing with records, in breach of the Intelligence Services Act and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act. He pleaded guilty to three of the charges last month.

Uren had taken the documents before he left the intelligence agency in 2001, during which time his actions were not illegal. Possessing the documents became an offence in 2014, under changes to national security legislation.

While Uren avoided jail, Magistrate Glenn Theakston convicted him on all three charges and issued him with a $7000 fine, to be paid within 28 days.

Barrister John Purnell argued Uren had forgotten that many of the documents were in his home, had never shared or intended to share them with anyone, and had “always worked hard and effectively for Australia’s interests”.

“Mr Uren realistically forgot about the existence of all but one of these documents, and even that one was the subject of forgetfulness,” he said.

But Theakston believed it was important to “send a clear message” to other people who have been entrusted with classified information, and the offending had involved “a breach of trust”.

“People who find themselves with access to national security information do so in a carefully controlled way. The obligation to protect that material is ongoing well beyond when someone finishes that work,” he said.

Theakston said Uren’s decision to take home classified documents was “misguided, counter-productive and at times, dangerous”, and there may have been “significant consequences” should the documents have become known to the wrong people.

“It’s akin to the offence of keeping a dangerous weapon without the intention to use that weapon. But if that weapon then fell into the wrong hands, the dangers and risks may manifest,” he said.

Since being charged, Uren has been socially rejected by some of his former colleagues and has been diagnosed with depression, the court heard.

A number of character references were provided by former colleagues, politicians, and political staffers, including former spy David Wright-Neville, former ambassador to China Dr Geoff Raby, author Thomas Kenneally, former government minister Neil Brown, and ex political staffer Greg Rudd — brother of Kevin Rudd.

The documents were found during raids on Uren’s Canberra home in 2015 and 2016. The raids were part of a probe into Chinese Communist Party links to the Australian political system.

Uren’s wife, Sheri Yan, was previously jailed in the United States for bribing former United Nations General Assembly president John Ashe. Yan currently lives in China. The court heard that Uren has only been able to travel to China once since being charged.

Uren worked as a media executive in Hong Kong up until he was charged. During his time as a diplomat, he served in Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and Washington DC, and was named as a potential ambassador to China. He worked as a spy from 1993 to 2001.

The Office of National Assessments was previously Australia’s peak intelligence assessment agency. It was established in 1977, after the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security commissioned by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and chaired by Justice Robert Marsden Hope. The agency has since transformed into the Office of National Intelligence.

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