ASIO is a statutory body under the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 and is responsible to the Parliament of Australia through the Attorney-General. The Organisation also reports to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and is subject to independent review by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. The head of ASIO is the Director-General of Security, who oversees the strategic management of ASIO within guidelines issued by the Attorney-General. The current Director-General is Duncan Lewis, who assumed office in September 2014.
In 2013, ASIO had a staff of around 1,740 personnel. The identity of ASIO officers, apart from the Director-General, remains an official secret. While ASIO is an equal opportunity employer, there has been some media comment of the Organisation's apparent difficulty in attracting people from a Muslim or Middle Eastern background. Furthermore, ASIO has undergone a period of rapid growth with some 70 per cent of the Organisation's officers having joined since 2002, leading to what Paul O'Sullivan, Director-General of Security from 2005 to 2009, called 'an experience gap'.
The special investigative powers available to ASIO officers under warrant signed by the Attorney-General include:interception of telecommunications;
examination of postal and delivery articles;
use of clandestine surveillance and tracking devices;
remote access to computers, including alteration of data to conceal that access;
covert entry to and search of premises, including the removal or copying of any record or thing found therein; and
conduct of an ordinary or frisk search of a person if they are at or near a premises specified in the warrant.
The Director-General also has the power to independently issue a warrant should a serious security situation arise and a warrant requested of the Attorney-General has not yet been granted.
An ASIO officer may also, without warrant, ask an operator of an aircraft or vessel questions about the aircraft or vessel, its cargo, crew, passengers, stores or voyage; and to produce supporting documents relating to these questions.
When investigating terrorism, the Director-General may also seek a warrant from an independent judicial authority to allow:the compulsory questioning of suspects;
the detention of suspects by the Australian Federal Police, and their subsequent interrogation by ASIO officers;
ordinary, frisk or strip search of suspects by AFP officers upon their detainment;
the seizure of passports; and
the prevention of suspects leaving Australia.
The Director-General is not empowered to independently issue a warrant in relation to the investigation of terrorism.
While The Act does not define any activities specifically to be legal, that is, to grant immunity for any specific crime, it does provide exceptions that will not be granted immunity. Section 35k (1) defines these activities as not being immune from liability for special intelligence conduct during special intelligence operations. That is to say, an ASIO operative would be deemed to have committed a crime if they were to participate in any of the following activities under any circumstances:an activity that causes death or serious injury
if the activity involves the commission of a sexual offence against any person
if the activity causes significant loss of, or serious damage to property
ASIO also has the power to collect foreign intelligence within Australia at the request of the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Minister for Defence. Known as Joint Intelligence Operations, and usually conducted in concert with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service the purpose of these operations is the gathering of security intelligence on and from foreign officials, organisations or companies.
Because of the nature of its work, ASIO does not make details of its activities public and law prevents the identities of ASIO officers from being disclosed. ASIO and the Commonwealth Government say that operational measures ensuring the legality of ASIO operations have been established.
ASIO briefs the Attorney General on all major issues affecting security and he/she is also informed of operations when considering granting warrants enabling the special investigative powers of ASIO. Furthermore, the Attorney-General issues guidelines with respect to the conduct of ASIO investigations relating to politically motivated violence and its functions of obtaining intelligence relevant to security.
ASIO reports to several governmental and parliamentary committees dealing with security, legislative and financial matters. This includes the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. A classified annual report is also provided to the government, an unclassified edited version of which is tabled in Federal Parliament.
The Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security was established in 1986 to provide additional oversight of Australia’s security and intelligence agencies. The Inspector-General has complete access to all ASIO records and has a range of inquisitorial powers.
Australia’s intelligence and security agencies maintain close working relationships with the foreign and domestic intelligence and security agencies of other nations. As of 22 October 2008, ASIO has established liaison relationships with 311 authorities in 120 countries.
Following the conclusion of World War II, the joint United States-UK Venona project uncovered sensitive British and Australian government data being transmitted through Soviet diplomatic channels. Officers from MI5 were dispatched to Australia to assist local investigations. The leak was eventually tracked to a spy ring operating from the Soviet Embassy in Canberra. Consequently, allied Western governments expressed disaffection with the state of security in Australia.
Subsequently, on 16 March 1949, Prime Minister Ben Chifley issued a Directive for the Establishment and Maintenance of a Security Service, appointing South Australian Supreme Court Justice Geoffrey Reed as the first Director-General of Security. In August 1949, Justice Reed advised the Prime Minister that he had decided to name the service the 'Australian Security Intelligence Organization' [sic] (the spelling was amended in 1999 to bring it into line with the Australian standard form 'organisation'). The new service was to be modelled on the Security Service of the United Kingdom and an MI5 liaison team (including probable Soviet double agent Sir Roger Hollis) was attached to the fledgling ASIO during the early 1950s. Historian Robert Manne describes this early relationship as “special, almost filial” and continues “ASIO’s trust in the British counter-intelligence service appears to have been near-perfect”. One of the foundation directors of ASIO, Robert Frederick Bird Wake, in his son's biography No Ribbons or Medals about his father's work as a counter espionage officer, is credited with getting " the show" started in 1949. Wake worked closely with the then director general Judge Geoffry Reed. During World War Two Reed conducted an inquiry into Wake's performance as a security officer and found that he was competent and innocent of the charges laid by the Army's commander-in-chief, General Thomas Blamey. This was the start of a relationship between Reed and Wake that lasted for more than 10 years. Wake was seen as the operational head of ASIO.
When the Labor Government was defeated, the new prime minister, Robert Menzies, appointed the deputy director of Military Intelligence, Charles Spry, as the director. Wake resigned shortly after Spry's appointment.
The operation to crack the Soviet spy ring in Canberra consumed much of the resources of ASIO during the 1950s. This operation became internally known as "The Case". Among the prime suspects of the investigations were Wally Clayton, a prominent member of the Australian Communist Party, and two diplomats with the Department of External Affairs, Jim Hill and Ian Milner. However, no charges resulted from the investigations, because Australia did not have any laws against peacetime espionage at the time.
On 6 July 1950 the Charter of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization was defined by the directive of Prime Minister Menzies, following the appointment of Colonel Spry as the new Director-General. ASIO was converted to a statutory body on 13 December 1956 through the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1956 (repealed by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979, the current legislation as amended to 2007).
5 February 1951 saw the arrival in Sydney of Vladimir Mikhaylovich Petrov, Third Secretary of the Soviet Embassy. An ASIO field officer identified Petrov as a possible 'legal', an agent of the Soviet Ministry of State Security (MGB, a forerunner to the KGB) operating under diplomatic immunity. The Organisation began gently cultivating Petrov through another agent, Dr. Michael Bialoguski, with the eventual goal of orchestrating his defection. Ultimately, Petrov was accused by the Soviet Ambassador of several lapses in judgement that would have led to his imprisonment and probable execution upon his return to the Soviet Union. Petrov feared for his life and grabbed the defection life-line thrown him by ASIO.
The actual defection occurred on 3 April 1954. Petrov was spirited to a safe house by ASIO officers, but his disappearance and the seeming reluctance of Australian authorities to search for him made the Soviets increasingly suspicious. Fearing a defection by Petrov, MVD officers dramatically escorted his wife Evdokia to a waiting aeroplane in Sydney. There was doubt as to whether she was leaving by choice or through coercion and so Australian authorities initially did not act to prevent her being bundled into the plane. However, ASIO was in communication with the pilot and learned through relayed conversations with a flight attendant that if Evdokia spoke to her husband she might consider seeking asylum in Australia.
An opportunity to allow her to speak with her husband came when the Director-General of Security, Charles Spry, was informed that the MVD agents had broken Australian law by carrying firearms on an airliner in Australian airspace and so could be detained. When the aeroplane landed in Darwin for refuelling, the Soviet party and other passengers were asked to leave the plane. Police, acting on ASIO orders, quickly disarmed and restrained the two MVD officers and Evdokia was taken into the terminal to speak to her husband via telephone. After speaking to him, she became convinced he was alive and speaking freely and asked the Administrator of the Northern Territory for political asylum.
The affair sparked controversy in Australia when circumstantial links were noted between the leader of the Australian Labor Party and the Communist Party of Australia (and hence to the Soviet spy ring). H.V. Evatt, the leader of the Labor Party at the time, accused Prime Minister Robert Menzies of arranging the Petrov defection to discredit him. The accusations lead to a disastrous split in the Labor party.
Petrov was able to provide information on the structure of the Soviet intelligence apparatus in the mid-1950s, information that was highly valuable to the United States. It was by obtaining this information that the Organisation's reputation in the eyes of the United States was greatly enhanced.
In fact, when Brigadier Spry retired, the Deputy Director of the CIA sent the following tribute:
“The relationship between the CIA and ASIO started as a very personal one. The real substantive relationship started with Sir Charles’ visit in 1955... Since Sir Charles’ first visit, the relationships with ASIO have continued to become closer and closer until today we have no secrets, regardless of classification or sensitivity, that are not made available to ASIO if it is pertinent to Australia’s internal security... I feel, as does the Director, a type of mutual trust in dealing with ASIO that is exceeded by no other service in the world today.”
ASIO's counter-intelligence successes continued throughout the Cold War. Following an elaborate investigation between 1961 and 1963, ASIO recommended the ejection of the First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy, Ivan Skripov, and his declaration as persona non grata. Skripov had been refining an Australian woman as an agent for Soviet intelligence; however, she was in fact an agent of ASIO.
In April 1983, ASIO uncovered more Soviet attempts at espionage and Valery Ivanov, who also held the post of First Secretary at the Soviet Embassy, was declared persona non grata. He was ejected from Australia on the grounds that he had performed duties in violation of his diplomatic status.
These successes were marred, however, by the penetration of ASIO by a KGB mole in the 1970s. Due to the close defence and intelligence ties between Australia and the United States, ASIO became a backdoor to American intelligence. Upon realising ASIO was compromised, the United States pulled back on the information it shared with Australia.
Following a strenuous internal audit and a joint Federal Police investigation, George Sadil was accused of being the mole. Sadil had been a Russian interpreter with ASIO for some 25 years and highly classified documents were discovered in his place of residence. Federal Police arrested Sadil in June 1993 and charged him under the Crimes Act 1914 with several espionage and official secrets related offences. However, parts of the case against him collapsed the following year.
Sadil was committed to trial in March 1994, but the Director of Public Prosecutions decided not to proceed with the more serious espionage-related charges after reviewing the evidence against him. Sadil's profile did not match that of the mole and investigators were unable to establish any kind of money trail between him and the KGB.
Sadil pleaded guilty in December 1994 to thirteen charges of removing ASIO documents contrary to his duty, and was sentenced to three months imprisonment. He was subsequently released on a 12 month good behaviour bond. It is believed that another ASIO officer, now retired, is suspected of being the mole but no prosecution attempts have been made.
In November 2004, former KGB Major-General Oleg Kalugin confirmed to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Four Corners programme that the KGB had in fact infiltrated ASIO in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
ASIO acknowledged in October 2016 that it had been infiltrated.
ASIO began planning for the 2000 Olympic and Paralympic Games, held in Sydney, as early as 1995. A specific Olympics Coordination Branch was created in 1997, and began recruiting staff with “specialised skills" the following year. In 1998, ASIO “strengthened information collection and analytical systems, monitored changes in the security environment more broadly, improved its communications technology and provided other agencies with strategic security intelligence assessments to assist their Olympics security planning.”
The Olympics Coordination Branch also began planning for the Federal Olympic Security Intelligence Centre (FOSIC) in 1998. FOSIC was to “provide security intelligence advice and threat assessments to State and Commonwealth authorities during the Sydney 2000 Games.”
In 2012 it was reported that ASIO had been monitoring the actions of Australians protesting against the coal industry, and was increasing its efforts from previous years. Minister Martin Ferguson said that he was particularly concerned about protests relating to the Hazelwood power station in Victoria. An unnamed security source told The Age newspaper that "providing advice and intelligence to safeguard [critical infrastructure] is clearly within ASIO's responsibilities... ASIO has a clear role, including protection against sabotage. And it's clear [environmental] activists pose a greater threat to energy facilities than terrorists." A spokesperson for Attorney General Nicola Roxon described ASIO's responsibility in monitoring political action groups as "limited to activity that is, or has the potential to be, violent for the purposes of achieving a political objective". Australian Greens party leader Bob Brown described ASIO monitoring environmentalists as a "political weapon" used by the Government for the benefit of "foreign-owned mining corporations".
On 21 August 1974, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced the establishment of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security to inquire into Australia’s intelligence agencies. Justice Robert Hope of the Supreme Court of New South Wales was appointed as Royal Commissioner.
In 1977 the Commission confirmed the need for Australia’s own security and intelligence agency and made many recommendations on improving the analytical capability and financial accountability of ASIO. It also advocated increased ministerial control, designated the conducting of security assessments for access to classified information to ASIO, and urged greater cooperation with police and foreign intelligence services. Also as a result of the Commission the jurisdiction of ASIO investigation was expanded to include sabotage and terrorism, and ASIO was given lawful authority to open mail, enter premises, use listening devices and intercept telegrams and telex under warrant.
Following the Sydney Hilton bombing of 1978, the government commissioned Justice Hope with conducting a review into national protective security arrangements and into co-operation between Federal and State authorities in regards to security. In the report concluded in 1979, Justice Hope designated ASIO as the agency responsible for national threat assessments in terrorism and politically motivated violence. He also recommended that relations between ASIO and State and Territory police forces be regulated by arrangements between governments.
Following the publicity surrounding the expulsion of Valery Ivanov, First Secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, the Government established a Royal Commission to review the activities of Australian Security and Intelligence Agencies. Justice Hope was again Royal Commissioner.
Justice Hope completed his report in December 1984. His recommendations included that:the security related activities which ASIO should investigate be redefined. References to subversion and terrorism be removed and replaced with politically motivated violence, attacks on Australia’s defence system and promoting communal violence;
ASIO be given additional functions of collecting foreign intelligence and providing protective security advice; and that
a separate office of Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security be established.
Justice Hope also recommended that amendments to the ASIO Act provide that “it is not the purpose of the Act that the right of lawful advocacy, protest or dissent should be affected or that exercising those rights should, by themselves, constitute activity prejudicial to security”.
In early 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating commissioned a review “of the overall impact of changes in international circumstances on the roles and priorities of the Australian intelligence agencies”. In the Prime Minister’s statement of 21 July 1992, Mr Keating said:Consistent with the philosophy of a separation of the assessment, policy and foreign intelligence collection functions, the Government considers that the existing roles of the individual agencies remain valid in the 1990s. The rationale outlined by Mr Justice Hope for ASIO as a freestanding, non-executive, advisory intelligence security agency remains relevant in the 1990s and the Government has therefore decided that ASIO should continue to have the roles and responsibilities laid down in existing legislation.
The Soviet threat certainly formed an important component of ASIO’s activities, but threats from other sources of foreign interference and politically motivated violence have been important to ASIO for some time, and will remain so. However, the implications for ASIO of the changes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are more far-reaching than for the other agencies. The Government has therefore decided that while ASIO’s capacity to meet its responsibilities must be maintained, there is scope for resource reductions.
The resource reductions mentioned were a cut of 60 staff and a $3.81 million budget decrease.
Following the trial of George Sadil over the ASIO mole scandal and from concern about the implications of material having been removed from ASIO without authority, the Prime Minister announced the appointment of Mr Michael Cook AO (former head of the Office of National Assessments) to inquire into various aspects of national security. The review was completed in 1994.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee completed several reviews and inquiries into ASIO during the 1990s. The first concerned the security assessment process. Another was held in September into “The nature, scope and appropriateness of the way in which ASIO reports to the Australian public on its activities.” The Committee concluded that “the total package of information available to the Australian community about ASIO's operations exceeds that available to citizens in other countries about their domestic intelligence agencies.” Pursuant to this, recommendations were made regarding the ASIO website and other publicly accessible information.
ASIO has been accused of executing an agenda against the Left of politics since its inception. In the 1960s, ASIO was also accused of neglecting its proper duties because of this supposed preoccupation with targeting the Left. Like other Western domestic security agencies, ASIO actively monitored protesters against the Vietnam War, Labor politicians and various writers, artists and actors who tended towards the Left. Other claims go further, alleging that the Organisation compiled a list of some 10,000 suspected Communist sympathisers who would be interned should the Cold War escalate.
Further accusations against ASIO were raised by the Attorney-General following a series of bombings from 1963 to 1970 on the consulate of Communist Yugoslavia in Australia by Croatian far-right militia. Attorney-General Lionel Murphy alleged that ASIO had withheld information on the group which could have led to preventative measures taken against further bomb attacks (however, Murphy was a member of the recently sworn-in Labor government, which still held a deep-seated suspicion of ASIO).
On 15 March 1973, Murphy and the Commonwealth Police raided the ASIO offices in Melbourne. While some claim the raid was disastrous, serving little purpose other than to shake-up both ASIO and the Whitlam government, the findings of such investigations were not published.
On 13 February 1978, the Sydney Hilton Hotel was bombed, one of the few domestic terrorist incidents on Australian soil. The Hotel was the location for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Three people in the street were killed – two council workers and a policeman – and several others injured. Former police officer Terry Griffiths, who was injured in the explosion, provided some evidence that suggested ASIO might have orchestrated the bombing or been aware of the possibility and allowed it to proceed. In 1985, the Director-General of Security issued a specific denial of the allegation. In 1991 the New South Wales parliament unanimously called for a joint State-Federal inquiry into the bombing. However, the Federal government vetoed any inquiry.
A few weeks after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, mistakes led ASIO to incorrectly raid the home of Bilal Daye and his wife. It has been revealed that the search warrant was for a different address. The couple subsequently sought damages and the embarrassing incident was settled out of court in late 2005, with all material relating to the case being declared strictly confidential.
In June 2004, Kim Beazley was accused of having a "special relationship" with Ratih Hardjono when he was defence minister. Hardjono was allegedly accused of "inappropriately" photographing a secure Australian Defence facility, working with the embassy ID, and having a close working relationship with her uncle, a senior officer in BAKIN (Indonesian Intelligence). In July, journalist Greg Sheridan contacted the then head of ASIO, Dennis Richardson, and discussed a classified operational investigation. Later in July members of the Attorney General's department were still investigating the original allegation, making Richardson's comments premature and inaccurate. The whole episode was a salient reminder to politicians in Canberra of the British experience of 'agents of influence' and honeypots. Ratih Hardjono was married to Bruce Grant in the 1990s.
In September 2005, the visa of American citizen, Scott Parkin, was cancelled after Director-General of Security, Paul O'Sullivan, issued an adverse security assessment of the visiting peace activist. Parkin was detained in Melbourne and held in custody for five days before being escorted under guard to Los Angeles, where he was informed that he was required to pay the Australian Government A$11,700 for the cost of his detention and removal. Parkin challenged the adverse security assessment in the Federal Court in a joint civil action with two Iraqi refugees, Mohammed Sagar and Muhammad Faisal, who faced indefinite detention on the island of Nauru after also receiving adverse security assessments in 2005.
Prior to his removal, Parkin had given talks on the role of U.S. military contractor Halliburton in the Iraq war and led a small protest outside the Sydney headquarters of Halliburton subsidiary KBR. The Attorney-General at that time, Philip Ruddock, refused to explain the reasons for Parkin's removal, leading to speculation that ASIO had acted under pressure from the United States. This was denied by O'Sullivan before a Senate committee, where he gave evidence that ASIO based its assessment only on Parkin's activities in Australia. O'Sullivan refused to answer questions before a later Senate committee hearing after his legal counsel told the Federal Court that ASIO did not necessarily base its assessment solely on Parkin's activities in Australia.
On 12 November 2007, the Supreme Court of New South Wales dismissed charges brought against a young medical student, Izhar ul-Haque. ASIO and the Australian Federal Police had investigated ul-Haque for allegedly training with Lashkar-e-Toiba in Pakistan, a declared terrorist organisation under the Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2002. However, the case against the medical student collapsed when it was revealed that ASIO officers had engaged in improper conduct during the investigation. Justice Michael Adams determined that because ul-Haque was falsely led to believe that he was legally compelled to comply with the ASIO officers, the conduct of at least one of the investigating ASIO officers constituted false imprisonment and kidnap at common law, and therefore key evidence against ul-Haque was inadmissible.
Under the Archives Act 1983, ASIO files can be released to the public after 30 years unless they fall into any of 16 exemption categories (as itemised in section 33 of the Archives Act).