The Australian Secret Intelligence Service at 60

Jerry Hofhuis

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 ghof3560@uni.sydney.edu.au

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One thought on “The Australian Secret Intelligence Service at 60

  1. Director-General Warners comments might be a good effort to raise the profile of ASIS, but there are three very serious issues that need addressing. These are not very popular topics of discussion in the polite circles of Australia’s security community, but they are serious nonetheless.

    1. Cold War Traitors. America had Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen and others. The UK had the Cambridge Circle (and others). Australia’s Cold War Traitors remain unrevealed. To suggest we had none is pure nonsense. Until the Government investigates these old wounds and failures (distasteful as that may be), there is little to recommend Australia’s contemporary security situation. Beyond anythign else, it is distasteful that Australian Intelligence Officers who betrayed their country still enjoy the public pension and honours to which they are not entitled. ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’ is not acceptable.

    2. Chinese Government Infiltration. The passive resources of infiltration within Australia available to the Contemporary Chinese Government outweighs that available to the USSR by orders of magnitude. Every major city has a China Town, there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and a wide diaspora of Chinese Australian citizens. I do not suggest that Chinese Australians are disloyal to the Commonwealth, but the pressures and influence that the CCP can bring to bear on these citizens (and anyone – those wanting to do business in China, for example) can be considerable.

    3. Cyber-security. We (relatively) don’t have any.

    These are unpopular issues, but must be addressed, and discussed by the Australian community as a whole. Warners should play a leading role in ensuring that these distasteful issues are handled candidly and competently – and not discretely ignored. It’s simply not enough to let sleeping dogs lie – or let Peking Bonds spy (groan). The threat to Australian interests from the mercantalist Chinese Government should not be ignored – the consequences may be more than we can pay.

    “Jeremiah/Cassandra”

‘When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite’.

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