Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS)

Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS)


The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) is Australia’s primary foreign intelligence agency, tasked with intelligence, counter-intelligence and other missions.

Government sources

Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS)

“ASIS’s function is stated in the Intelligence Services Act 2001. Its role is to:

  • collect foreign intelligence, not available by other means, which may impact on Australian interests;

  • distribute that intelligence to the Government, including key policy departments and agencies;

  • undertake counter-intelligence activities which protect Australian interests and initiatives; and

  • engage other intelligence and security services overseas in Australia’s national interests

Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS),  Agency resources and planned performance, DFAT, Budget Papers, 2010-11

Parliamentary committees

Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security

Australian parliamentary committee with limited powers of oversight over the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Secret Intelligence service, and the Defence Signals Directorate, providing annual reports and reports on matters referred to it by the government.

Government inquiries

Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO, ASIS and DSD, Inquiry into Intelligence on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, Commonwealth of Australia, 2004.

Report of the Inquiry into Australian Intelligence Agencies (Flood Report), Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 22 July 2004.external-link

Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Resourcing and effectiveness of the agencies, Chapter 7, Report of the Inquiry into Australian Intelligence Agencies (Flood Report), Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 22 July 2004.

“The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) was established in 1952 as a collector of secret foreign intelligence, primarily in the Asia-Pacific region. The organisation grew out of, and was modeled on, its British counterpart, the UK Secret Intelligence Service (UKSIS). The organisation was first referred to in parliament in 1975 and was not publicly avowed until 1977. The Intelligence Services Act 2001 provided a legislative footing for ASIS for the first time, placing on the public record the functions of the organisation, and its limits. Under that legislation, the organisation’s fundamental role is to produce foreign secret intelligence, but the Act allows for additional tasks to be added to ASIS’s mandate. ASIS works closely with a wide group of intelligence partners. It has particularly close links with comparable services in the UK and the US, and has a wide range of ties with intelligence services of other countries, many of them in the Asian region.

“ASIS is going through perhaps the most substantial transition in its history. In line with the changing security environment, ASIS’s responsibilities are now more diverse. While important traditional requirements remain, ASIS also has a growing role in gathering intelligence on non-state actors, including terrorist networks and illegal immigration syndicates. In line with the additional requirements laid on it, ASIS is growing. Since 2000, the funding available to ASIS has doubled. In the 2004-05 financial year, ASIS will have a budget of more than $100 million. An extra $20 million has been allocated since September 11 for counter-terrorism alone.

“Overall, the Inquiry found that ASIS’s performance against its key objectives is very good. It has committed staff and an able management team. Its production of secret intelligence is strong in some areas, though improvements in quality are required in others. While there have been some early achievements, it is too soon to make a comprehensive judgment about ASIS’s success on new requirements, including terrorism. ASIS has a challenging period ahead. It must complete a major expansion, which entails some real risks. It is required to produce high-quality intelligence on new and complex subjects, notably terrorism. In doing this, it must balance carefully the demands for new intelligence production against the maintenance of a prudent risk management framework.”

Foreign Intelligence Co-ordination Committee

Commentary and analysis 

Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Brian Toohey & William Pinwill, Heinemann 1989.

Dark Victory, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, Allen and Unwin 2005

Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Wikipedia

Spy agency ASIS shuts six foreign stations, Dylan Welch, Age, November 20, 2010

Australia’s foreign spy agency has shut down six of its international intelligence stations in eight months – including the crucial Baghdad post, despite US pleas to keep it open. In a remarkable step for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the closures have been privately blamed on a ”cash freeze”, though some intelligence sources are doubtful an agency that has grown by almost 350 per cent in a decade is starved of funds.
”There are cuts in the Middle East, and they are savage,” a source told The Age. Baghdad was closed in July, weeks before the federal election. While the closures – primarily in the Middle East – were planned late last year, it took the government eight months to follow through. In recent years Baghdad has been ASIS’s largest station and has played a vital role in foreign intelligence collection.

It is believed a number of the intelligence officers from the station have been relocated to Oruzgan province in Afghanistan, where Australia’s war efforts have been centred. Staff from Baghdad and the five other stations have been spread around the international network, which consists of as many as two dozen stations. However, in recent years some of the agency’s stations have done less spying and more liaising with the US and UK intelligence agencies, who run many agents in the Middle East.

 Oversight of Australia’s Intelligence Services, Geoffrey R.Weller, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 12: 4, 484 — 503, (1999)

ASIS reportedly maintains about ten overseas stations, all but one in Asia, staffed by one to three officers. It has four facilities in Australia in addition to the headquarters: a training facility on Swan Island; a station in Sydney; a radio station (Kowandi) near Darwin; and a special communications laboratory in an unidentified location. p.486

ASIS spies ‘illegal but needed’, Cameron Stewart, The Australian, 28 May 2008

Australian governments would have to embrace “illegal”, “deceptive” and “underhanded” espionage overseas in order to protect the national interest, according to the top-secret reports of the Hope Royal Commission. The reports, released in full yesterday under the 30-year rule, contained blunt calls for more aggressive espionage overseas, warning that failure to do so could compromise vital Australian political, military and economic interests in the region. The reports show that despite Justice Robert Hope’s damning findings on the domestic spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, he was upbeat about the potential of the two foreign spy agencies, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and the eavesdropping agency Defence Signals Directorate. The previously unreleased report relating to ASIS found Australian governments needed to accept that foreign espionage had become vital to the national interest.

“Any state which fails to exploit clandestine human resources, as well as other methods of intelligence collection, may deny its government access to the motives, plans and designs of other powers,” the report said. “Without clandestine intelligence, we may lack the best basis upon which to negotiate successfully on political or economic matters or perhaps to prepare military plans of our own.” But it warned that Australian governments would have to accept they were breaking the law to obtain this intelligence. “In all cases, espionage is illegal and the clandestine service’s job is to break those laws without being caught,” it said. “Espionage is deceptive, covert, underhand. It is probably the second-oldest profession.”

Hope’s report is the first coherent explanation of the value of intelligence to a modern Australia and the first to officially admit that spying is an inherently dirty game that seeks to “penetrate the veil” of foreign powers. “We should not allow the use of any euphemisms to cloud the central issue — that ASIS exists to conduct espionage against foreign countries and that, to do it successfully, ASIS must probably infringe the laws of those countries and certainly be prepared to do so,” it said. The report reveals Hope dismissed the opinion of the Foreign Affairs Department which said ASIS was “not absolutely essential”, instead arguing that ASIS expand its reach and influence. Hope called for ASIS to expand its geographical reach beyond Asia, increase its focus on economic and resource intelligence, and boost its counter-intelligence capabilities.

Puppet-master now pulling the strings at ASIS, Hamish McDonald, 20 February 2003

“In a world more fixated on intelligence-gathering satellites, remote sensors, electronic money trails and computerised decryption techniques, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service remains in the traditional business of spying, using field agents and their networks of informants motivated by idealism, grudges, greed or blackmail. Stepping up to take charge of Australia’s efforts in this murky world is David Irvine, 55, known for his cricketing skills in his younger days and his adroit diplomatic work with foreign affairs, most recently as ambassador to China. From March 1, he takes over as director-general of ASIS. Although the secret service operates as a subsidiary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, reporting to the foreign minister, it is a new field for Irvine.The organisation Irvine takes over is estimated by Australian National University intelligence specialist Desmond Ball to have about 200 staff, with 72 in the field at any one time, stationed at 18 Australian diplomatic missions. In most stations, there is one ASIS officer “declared” to the host country, who carries out liaison work and information exchanges with its counterpart intelligence agency, and another who is not declared and who tries to find out information “not readily available by other means”, as the ASIS website puts the modus operandi. The ASIS stations in Bangkok, Jakarta and Tokyo are thought to have three officers each. The undeclared officer tends to be the second secretary who shows a surprisingly detailed knowledge of subjects like the Thai heroin trade, or the involvement of Indonesia’s first family in the oil tanker business. Under the outgoing ASIS director-general, Allan Taylor, the service was decisively stripped of covert paramilitary activity, which stays with the army special forces and counter-terrorist units.”

Australian foreign policy and the management of intelligence post-September 11, James Cotton, Discussion Paper 06-03, Asia Pacific School of Economics and Government, Australian National University, 2006

Commission of Inquiry into the Australian Secret Intelligence Service: Its Findings and Recommendations, Research Note Number 36, 9 May 1995, Parliamentary Library, Commonwealth of Australia.

See also

 Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
Additional research: Arabella imhoff

Updated: 22 November 2010