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).
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.