Definitions

intelligence service

Australian Secret Intelligence Service

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) is the Australian government intelligence agency responsible for collecting foreign intelligence, undertaking counter-intelligence activities and cooperation with other intelligence agencies overseas. ASIS is equivalent to the United Kingdom Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) or the United States Central 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.

As its mission statement implies, ASIS's focus is on overseas operations. This distinguishes it from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

ASIS is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio and is housed within DFAT's headquarters in Canberra. Its current Director-General is David Irvine.

History

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 modelled 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. This paper ran an exposé regarding recruitment of ASIS agents from Australian universities for espionage activities in Asia. This article was followed by a more in-depth piece in The Australian Financial Review on the Australian Intelligence Community (ASIO, ASIS, the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) [now the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO)], the Defence Signals Division (DSD) [now the Defence Signals Directorate] and the Office of National Assessments (ONA)).

The article in The Australian Financial Review 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'.

On 25 October 1977, then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser declared the existence of ASIS and its functions following a recommendation by the first of the Hope Royal Commissions (see below).

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

Three Royal Commissions have examined, among other things, ASIS and its operations: in 1974 and 1983 (the Hope Royal Commissions), and in 1994 (the Samuels and Codd Royal Commission).

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 Michael 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. 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.

Controversies

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 disastrously wrong. The exercise was to be a mock surveillance and hostage rescue of foreign intelligence officers. It involved junior officers who had undergone 3 weeks prior training and who were given considerable leeway in planning and executing the operation. Ultimately, in executing the operation, the trainees were found to have used considerable force, distressed a number of the staff and guests and physically assaulting the Hotel Manager.

Within 2 days the Minister for Foreign Affairs announced that 'an immediate and full investigation' would be conducted under the auspices of the second Hope Royal Commission, 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.

Following the incident, The Sunday Age disclosed the names, or the assumed names, of five of the officers 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 Hope Royal Commission 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 Hope Royal Commission, the covert action function was apparently abolished. The Functions of ASIS can be found in section 7 of the Intelligence Services Act, as can those functions which are proscribed by the act.

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 Sandline contractors in relation to the independence movement in Bougainville.)

Chinese embassy bugging

In 1990, unwelcome attention for the agency was also garnered by the outing of a bugging operation on the Chinese embassy.

Four Corners programme

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 programme 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.

Two days after the program aired, the Samuels and Codd Royal Commission was formed by Minister for Foreign Affairs Gareth Evans.

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 IO's 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

See main article: 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 Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer, which proposed significant changes to the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC). The Act was passed by Parliament on 29 October 2001.

In relation to ASIS, the Act:

  • converted ASIS into a statutory body, headed by the Director General;
  • set out the functions of ASIS and DSD and the limits on those functions;
  • prohibited the use of weapons by ASIS (except for self defence) and the conduct of violent or para-military operations;
  • authorised the minister responsible for each agency to issue directions to the agency;
  • required ministerial authorisation for intelligence collection activities involving Australians;
  • limited the circumstances in which ministers can authorise collection of intelligence on Australians;
  • required the ministers to make rules regulating the communication and retention by the agencies of intelligence information concerning Australian persons; and
  • provided for the establishment of a parliamentary oversight committee, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO, ASIS and DSD.

Intelligence Services Amendment Act 2004

See main article: 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 (ie: where the overseeing minister deems suitable).

The Bill created controversy over its allowance for 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.

The Bill was passed on 1 April 2004, five and a half months after it was introduced.

See also

References

Credit

A large portion of the history of ASIS was adapted from the Parliament of Australia Bills Digest No. 11 of 2001-02 of Intelligence Services Act 2001

External links

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