Having come a long way over the past decade, ASIS is now a small but potent organisation, vital to Australia’s security. But as Australia’s strategic environment evolves at an increasing pace, further change and adaptation will be demanded from the Service. These demands may have to be met with more resources in the future. That was the message today from its Director-General, Nick Warner.
The excitement was palpable in Canberra today: the first public speech held by a serving Director-General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. It was of course not to be without an allusion to one of the most acclaimed spy novels of all time, with Nick Warner apologising for being ‘the spy who came in with the cold’ – a cold flu that is.
ASIS has a critical role in counter-terrorism, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, liaison with foreign intelligence agencies, a growing role in cyber-security, as well increased as cooperation with the Australian Defence Force on operations. But Warner also noted ASIS has played a role in interdicting people-smuggling networks, observing the Service is ‘acutely aware of the priorities of the Government’.
Tracing public knowledge of ‘the scheme’ – an ASIS euphemism – the Director-General recapped past controversies, most notably the 1983 Sheraton Hotel debacle. It is this history of mostly negative reporting in the rare instances that ASIS does make the headlines that may have provided impetus for the top spy to step out into the limelight now.
Citing successive reviews throughout its history, Mr. Warner argued that ASIS has been and continues to be a key aspect of Australia’s security architecture. Discussing his organisation’s role, he explained that human intelligence is the key objective.
And whether chasing terrorists around the Middle East or interdicting people-smuggling networks, recruiting and handling foreign agents is a most sensitive of exercises. As such, secrecy will continue to be paramount to ASIS’ business.
However, a rapidly changing strategic environment necessitates changes to the Service – and perhaps expansion. Mr. Warner spoke at great length on how ASIS has come a long way over the past decade and how the next decade will necessitate yet further change.
Most leaders taking up a rotational posting at the head of an organisation will want to leave a mark. With the average ASIS Director-General serving just under six years, Mr. Warner is now likely to be half-way through his tenure.
ASIS is a relatively small organisation with a budget of around $250 million. Signalling that the Service likely to play an “even more central role in securing Australia’s future in the decades ahead”, it is likely that today’s event will have foreshadowed this Director-General’s future call for more resources.
Jerry Hofhuis recently completed a Master’s Degree at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. He may be contacted at email@example.com