The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS; /ˈeɪsɪs/) is the national foreign intelligence agency of Australia. It is responsible for overseas intelligence collection, including both counter-intelligence and liaising with the intelligence agencies of other countries. In these roles, ASIS is comparable to the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the AmericanCentral Intelligence Agency (CIA).
According to its website, the mission of ASIS is to: “Protect and promote Australia’s vital interests through the provision of unique foreign intelligence services as directed by Government.
On 13 May 1952, in a meeting of the Executive Council, Prime Minister Robert Menzies established ASIS by the executive power of the Commonwealth under s 61 of the Constitution, appointing Alfred Deakin Brookes as head.The existence of ASIS remained secret even within the Government for a period of twenty years.
Its Charter of 15 December 1954 described ASIS’s role as “to obtain and distribute secret intelligence, and to plan for and conduct special operations as may be required”. ASIS was expressly required to “operate outside Australian territory.” A Ministerial Directive of 15 August 1958 indicated that its special operations role included conducting “special political action.” It also indicated that the organisation would come under the control and supervision of the Minister for External Affairs rather than the Minister for Defence. At the time, ASIS was substantially modeled on the United Kingdom Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. ASIS was at one time referred to as MO9.
On 1 November 1972, ASIS was sensationally exposed by The Daily Telegraph which ran an exposé regarding recruitment of ASIS agents from Australian universities for espionage activities in Asia. Soon after The Australian Financial Review published a more in-depth piece on the Australian Intelligence Community (ASIO, ASIS, the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) [now the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO)], the Defence Signals Division(DSD) [formerly the Defence Signals Directorate, now the Australian Signals Directorate] and the Office of National Assessments (ONA)). It stated that “[t]he ASIS role is to collect and disseminate facts only. It is not supposed to be in the analytical or policy advising business though this is clearly difficult to avoid at times.” The Ministerial Statement of 1977 stated that the “main function” of ASIS was to “obtain, by such means and subject to such conditions as are prescribed by the Government, foreign intelligence for the purpose of the protection or promotion of Australia or its interests.”
In 1992 two reports were prepared on ASIS by officers within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Office of National Assessments for the Secretaries Committee on Intelligence and Security (SCIS) and the Security Committee of Cabinet (SCOC). The Richardson Report in June examined the roles and relationships of the collection agencies (ASIO, ASIS and DSD) in the post cold war era. The Hollway Report in December examined shortfalls in Australia’s foreign intelligence collection. Both reports endorsed the structure and roles of the organisations and commended the performance of ASIS.
Royal Commissions examining ASIS
First Hope Royal Commission
On 21 August 1974, the Whitlam Government appointed Justice Robert Hope to conduct a Royal Commission into the structure of security and intelligence services, the nature and scope of the intelligence required and the machinery for ministerial control, direction and coordination of the security services. The Hope Royal Commission delivered eight reports, four of which were tabled in Parliament on 5 May 1977 and 25 October 1977. Aside from the observation that ASIS was ‘singularly well run and well managed’, the report(s) on ASIS were not released. Results from the other reports included the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 and the establishment of the Office of National Assessments (ONA) and the passage of the Office of National Assessments Act 1977.
Second Hope Royal Commission
On 17 May 1983 the Hawke Government reappointed Justice Hope to conduct a second Royal Commission into ASIS, ASIO, ONA, DSD and JIO (now DIO). The inquiry was to examine progress in implementing the previous recommendations; arrangements for developing policies, assessing priorities and coordinating activities among the organisations; ministerial and parliamentary accountability; complaints procedures; financial oversight and the agencies’ compliance with the law. As with the first Hope Royal Commission, the reports on ASIS and DSD, which included draft legislation on ASIS, were not made public.
Samuels and Codd Royal Commission
In response to a Four Corners program aired on 21 February 1994, on 23 February 1994, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Gareth Evans announced a ‘root and branch’ review of ASIS. The Government appointed Justice Gordon Samuels and Mike Codd to inquire into the effectiveness and suitability of existing arrangements for control and accountability, organisation and management, protection of sources and methods, and resolution of grievances and complaints. The Royal Commission reported in March 1995.
Four Corners reporter Ross Coulthart made allegations regarding intelligence held by ASIS on Australians. He claimed that ‘ASIS secretly holds tens of thousands of files on Australian citizens, a database completely outside privacy laws’. This allegation was investigated and denied by Samuels and Codd (see below), but the Minister did acknowledge that ASIS maintained files. The Minister said: ‘ASIS does have some files, as one would expect in an organisation of that nature, even though its brief extends to activities outside the country rather than inside. They are essentially of an administrative nature.’
However, Samuels and Codd did find that certain grievances of the former officers were well founded. They appeared to support the officers’ concerns regarding the grievance procedures:
Bearing in mind the context in which the members of ASIS work, it is not surprising that there should develop a culture which sets great store by faithfulness and stoicism and tends to elevate conformity to undue heights and to regard the exercise of authority rather than consultation as the managerial norm.
However, Samuels and Codd observed that the information published in the Four Corners program was ‘skewed towards the false’, that ‘the level of factual accuracy about operational matters was not high’, and, quoting an aphorism, that ‘what was disturbing was not true and what was true was not disturbing’. They concluded that the disclosure of the information was unnecessary and unjustifiable and had damaged the reputation of ASIS and Australia overseas. The commissioners stated that ‘evidence presented to us of action and reaction in other countries satisfies us that the publication was damaging’: They rejected any suggestion that ASIS was unaccountable or ‘out of control’. They said, ‘its operational management is well structured and its tactical decisions are thoroughly considered and, in major instances, subject to external approval’. They recommended that complaints regarding ASIS operations continue to be handled by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) but that staff grievances be handled by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
In addition to their recommendations, Samuels and Codd put forward draft legislation to provide a statutory basis for ASIS and to protect various information from disclosure. The Samuels and Codd Bill, like the bulk of the reports, was not made public.
The Sheraton Hotel incident
On 30 November 1983, ASIS garnered unwanted negative attention when a training operation held at the Sheraton Hotel, now the Mercure (Spring Street), in Melbourne went wrong. The exercise was to be a mock surveillance and hostage rescue of foreign intelligence officers. In March 1983, ASIS had begun training a covert team of civilians, including a female, at Swan Island in Victoria whose role was to protect or release Australians who may be threatened or captured by terrorists overseas. The military in 1981 had established a counter terrorist unit for operations only in Australia. The personnel involved in the training operation included ten operators, four ASIS officers and six ASIS civilian trainees, and two commandos from the Army Reserve 1st Commando Regiment with only the sergeant participating as an observer in the hotel foyer.
The training operation involved junior officers who had undergone three weeks prior training and who were given considerable leeway in planning and executing the operation. The mock hostage rescue was staged on the 10th floor of the hotel without the permission of the hotel’s owner or staff. When ASIS operators were refused entry into a hotel room, they broke down the door with sledgehammers. The hotel manager, Nick Rice, was notified of a disturbance on the 10th floor by a hotel guest. When he went to investigate, he was forced back into the lift by an ASIS operator who rode the lift down to the ground floor and forcibly ejected Rice into the lobby. Believing a robbery was in progress, Rice called the police. When the lift started returning to the ground floor, ASIS operators emerged wearing masks and openly brandishing 9mm Browning pistols and Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns, two of them with silencers. They forced their way through the lobby to the kitchen, where two getaway cars were waiting outside the kitchen door. Police stopped one of the cars and arrested the occupants, two ASIS officers and three ASIS civilian trainees, who refused to produce any form of identification.
Within two days the Minister for Foreign Affairs Bill Hayden announced that an “immediate and full” investigation would be conducted under the auspices of the second Hope Royal Commission on Australian Security and Intelligence Agencies, which was still in progress. A report was prepared and tabled by February 1984. It described the exercise as being ‘poorly planned, poorly supervised and poorly run’ and recommended that measures be taken in training to improve planning and eliminate adverse impacts on the public.
The Victoria Police conducted their own investigation but were frustrated because the Director General of ASIS, John Ryan, refused to cooperate. Bill Hayden offered to provide the real names of the seven officers involved in confidence. Premier of Victoria John Cain told Hayden that “as far as the police were concerned, there was no such thing as information in confidence”.
Following the incident, The Sunday Age disclosed the names, or the assumed names, of five of the operators involved. The journalist noted that ‘according to legal advice taken by The Sunday Age there is no provision that prevents the naming of an ASIS agent’. While not included within the public version of the report, the Royal Commission headed by Mr Justice Hope did prepare an appendix which would appear to have dealt with the possible security and foreign relations consequences of disclosure of participants’ names by The Sunday Age. Subsequently, in A v Hayden, the High Court held that the Commonwealth owed no enforceable duty to ASIS officers to maintain confidentiality of their names or activities.
At the time of the Sheraton Hotel incident, the extant Ministerial Directive permitted ASIS to undertake ‘covert action’, including ‘special operations’ which, roughly described, comprised ‘unorthodox, possibly para-military activity, designed to be used in case of war or some other crisis’. Following the incident and the recommendations of the Royal Commission, the covert action function was apparently abolished. The functions of ASIS can be found in section 6 of the Intelligence Services Act, as can those functions which are proscribed by the act.
Ultimately, in executing the operation, the operators were found to have used considerable force, menacing a number of the staff and guests with weapons and physically assaulting the hotel manager. Hope found Ryan to be at fault for authorising the training operation in a public place using concealed weapons. Ryan resigned in February 1984. Hope said it was not part of his Terms of Reference to make findings or recommendations on whether any individual had committed any offence. However he did note that the individuals could potentially be prosecuted by the State of Victoria with a long list of criminal offences, including possession of firearms without a licence, possession of prohibited implements (including machine guns, silencers and housebreaking tools), aggravated burglary in possession of a firearm, common assault, wilful damage to property, possession of a disguise without lawful excuse and numerous motor vehicle offences. More than a year after the raid, the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions concluded that while certain offences had been committed, including criminal damage and assault with a weapon, there was insufficient evidence to charge any person with a specific offence.
Victorian Holdings Ltd, the company managing the hotel, subsequently took legal action against the Commonwealth on behalf of itself and 14 hotel staff. The matter was settled out of court with the hotel being offered $300,000 in damages. The total payout to the hotel and staff was $365,400.
Involvement in Papua New Guinea
Between 1989 and 1991 ASIS came under scrutiny following allegations relating to its role and activities in Papua New Guinea. It was alleged that ASIS had been involved in training Papua New Guinean troops to suppress independence movements in Irian Jaya and Bougainville. (In 1997 it was alleged that ASIS and DSD had failed to collect, or the Government had failed to act upon, intelligence regarding the role and presence of Sandlinecontractors in relation to the independence movement in Bougainville.)
Four Corners program
Towards the end of 1993 ASIS became the subject of media attention after allegations were made by former ASIS officers that ASIS was unaccountable and out of control. One newspaper alleged that ‘ASIS regularly flouted laws, kept dossiers on Australian citizens … and hounded agents out of the service with little explanation’. In particular it alleged that agents were being targeted in a purge by being threatened with criminal charges relating to their official conduct, reflecting a pattern which suggested to some that ASIS or a senior ASIS officer had been ‘turned’ by a foreign intelligence service.
On 21 February 1994 Four Corners ran a program which aired the key allegations. Two former ASIS officers made claims regarding cultural and operational tensions between ASIS and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). They claimed that embassy staff had maliciously or negligently compromised activities involving the running of foreign informants and agents and the defection of foreign agents to Australia. They claimed that their grievances were ignored and that they were ‘deserted in the field’ and made scapegoats by ASIS.
The officers and the reporter Ross Coulthart also made brief claims regarding operational activities and priorities. The officers personally claimed that ASIS advice had been ignored by DFAT. The reporter repeated claims regarding ASIS operations aimed at destabilising the Aquino Government in the Philippines. He also made claims regarding ASIS assistance to MI6 in the Falkland conflict, in Hong Kong and in Kuwait for the benefit of British interests (including commercial interests) and potentially to the detriment of Australian interests.
The bulk of the personal statements by the officers concerned their private grievances. They raised two issues of public interest regarding the effect of secrecy on the operation of grievance procedures and the extent to which the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade was aware of or in control of ASIS operations. The reporter directly raised the issue of the appropriateness of ASIS operations particularly with respect to priority setting in overseas postings and operations, cooperation with foreign intelligence services, and the privacy of Australian persons and organisations. By implication, the program queried the extent to which ASIS is or should be accountable to the Minister, to Government and to Parliament.
The following day, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs called for an independent judicial inquiry into the allegations. He expressed particular concern about the nature of ASIS cooperation with foreign agencies and the defects in ASIS grievance procedures. He later called for the inquiry to examine the ‘poisoned relationship between ASIS and DFAT‘. The Democrats spokeswoman called for a standing parliamentary committee.
Alleged management and staffing problems
In 2005, The Bulletin ran an article based on allegations by serving ASIS officers that alluded to gross mismanagement of intelligence operations, staff assignments, and taskings, particularly with respect to the war on terrorism.
The unnamed officers pointed out various problems within the agency that were plaguing the organisation’s ability to collect vital and timely intelligence, such as the pitting of “…young mostly white university educated agents with limited language skills and little knowledge of Islam against poor, zealous extremists intent on becoming suicide bombers.”, the “inappropriate” assignment of “…young female IOs (Intelligence Officers) against Islamic targets…”, poor staff retention rates, and general lack of officers possessing meaningful field experience.
The officers also cite a lack of proper support given to IOs tasked against terrorist targets, and the doctoring of intelligence by ASIS management, as also contributing to the lack of progress of the agency in the war on terrorism.
Legislative changes affecting ASIS
Intelligence Services Act 2001
ASIS was created as a result of an Executive Order in 1952, and as such, had no legislative basis. On 27 June 2001, the Intelligence Services Act 2001 (ISA) was introduced into Parliament by then Minister for Foreign AffairsAlexander Downer, which proposed significant changes to the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC). The Act was passed by Parliament on 29 October 2001.
The Intelligence Services Act 2001 converted ASIS into a statutory body, headed by the Director General. It set out the function of ASIS and the limit on that function. Use of weapons was prohibited by ASIS (except for self-defence). Conduct of violent or para-military operations was also curtailed. The act authorised the minister responsible for ASIS to issue directions to the agency. Ministerial authorisation is required for intelligence collection activities involving Australians but limited the circumstances in which this could be done. It required the minister to make rules regulating the communication and retention of intelligence information concerning Australian persons. The Act provided for the establishment of a parliamentary oversight committee, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO, ASIS and DSD.
Intelligence Services Amendment Act 2004
On 15 October 2003, the Intelligence Services Amendment Bill 2003 was introduced into Parliament by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, as an amendment to the original Intelligence Services Act 2001 (ISA). The Bill sought to amend the original ISA to allow ASIS to be involved in the planning and undertaking of paramilitary or violent activities by others, and provide, train with, and use weapons and self-defence techniques in certain circumstances(that is where the overseeing minister deems the circumstances suitable). The Bill allowed ASIS to work with other organisations (such as the CIA or MI6) in paramilitary operations, provided ASIS staff and agents were not personally involved in carrying it out. Passed on 1 April 2004, five and a half months after it was introduced, the legislation enables ASIS Intelligence Officers to carry a firearm, but only for protection. These officers will also receive weapons handling training, and new generation interrogation training.