The Australian Secret Intelligence Service: 007 blessing and curse
15 Nov 2020|

When intelligence folk smell roses, they look for the funeral. That bit of spy lore is about finding the opportunity in the threats (or vice versa).

The lore hints at the mystique of the trade: the allure of secrets.

As a former head of Oz spies (the Australian Secret Intelligence Service) and spy-catchers (the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation), David Irvine takes a droll view of the forbidden-fruit fascination of both secrets and sex. Irvine cites this wonderful bit of fruitiness from a top British diplomat, Rodric Braithwaite:

‘The subject of intelligence attracts attention out of proportion to its real importance. My theory is that this is because secrets are like sex. Most of us think that others get more than we do. Some of us cannot have enough of either. Both encourage fantasy. Both send the press into a feeding frenzy. All this distorts sensible discussion.’

For journalists, sex and secrets must lead to James Bond (‘racy without careening into the red zone of camp’). And so it was in the final episode of the ASPI interviews with the director-general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Paul Symon, the question was posed: Is James Bond a blessing or a curse? Both, replied Symon:

A blessing because on holidays it’s a darn good read or darn good movie. Curse, because there’s so much wrong—there’s so much wrong with the way he performs his function. He’s licensed to kill. We don’t give people a licence to kill. He has, one would suggest, an ego, aspects of narcissism that wouldn’t fit comfortably with my people. So, he’s a blessing and a curse.

Dealing with the mythology of the mystique is one reason that Australia’s top spy has gone before the camera for four ASPI interviews.

Symon says ASIS has a good story to tell the Australian people. And as the only ASIS officer who can be named, he sees the need for more public conversations. Lots of media attention is a problem, he says, ‘but no media attention is a problem as well’.

Spies, Symon says, can go to places denied diplomats, where the internet search engines can’t reach. The job is to ‘pick the eyes out of the most sensitive secrets overseas that bear in on our national interest and help inform a judgement that our government needs to make—whether it’s in relation to our military, our economic or security outlook. We’re trying to help inform that debate and we are looking for that piece of gold that is not obtainable by any other means.’

Finding gold is always tough, as is searching for those intelligence nuggets. ASPI senior fellow Andrew Davies, in the ‘new age of espionage’ issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, writes of the complications of darkening geopolitics, surging technology, and a continuing terrorist threat. Yet many ‘dirty tricks’ of the past have transitioned to digital, Davies says, showing ‘the enduring value of old-school espionage’.

Danielle Cave, deputy director of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre, writes that data mountains and cyberspace loom over spycraft. Spooks must fear algorithms and facial recognition technologies, Cave says, because everyone leaves a trace online: ‘Spies can’t always teleconference like the rest of us.’

Following those themes, I asked Symon about the viability of gathering human intelligence amid the ‘digital cornucopia and cyber cacophony’. The cornucopia–cacophony line drew the most amused raised eyebrow from Australia’s chief spy in our interviews. But my follow-on line (‘There’s a lot of noise out there.’) worked because, apparently, that touches concepts ASIS is using, as Symon explains:

There are jewels there, and that’s what drives us—to find those jewels. The other aspect of that very complex array of cornucopias and cacophonies that you’ve talked about is that … there’s an opportunity for us to ‘swim’ in that noise—as the term that we use inside the organisation—and to be pretty invisible in that noise. There’s a lot happening, a lot of bandwidth, there is a lot of noise. How can we perform our function in the middle of that without it being clear that we are part of a foreign espionage service? How do we use that cacophony? How do we swim in all of that noise to quietly go about our business? We’re turning our mind to that, because we think that’s where the future of the Service lies.

Reaction to the ASIS interviews varies. The Australian’s Ben Packham thought getting the top spy in front of a camera for the first time made for ‘a landmark series of video interviews’. By contrast, Hamish McDonald (one of the finest Oz foreign correspondents of my generation) felt it went ‘softly, softly’ in the ‘carefully controlled setting’ of ASPI.

The historian Peter Edwards sees the interviews responding to the need to make ‘secret agencies as transparent as possible about their past, current and likely future activities’. A comment I valued was from a Canberra wise owl who said the series works because it’s ‘reporting on ASIS as an organisation rather than a fantasy’.

The effort to clarify purposes and principles is where Symon starts and finishes the final ASPI interview: ‘We are not some maverick organisation sitting outside. We are the Australian people, we are comprised of them.’

For 68 years, ASIS has dwelt in the most secret spaces of the spook universe. In lifting the cloak a little, Symon concludes with these words to Australians on what they should understand about ASIS:

We are you—we serve you, we serve the government, we serve the prosperity and security agenda that we all aspire to for our nation now and into the future. We’re a component. We proudly serve Australians. We think we do it well, we do it legally, we do it with propriety, we do it conscientiously.

And so really my message is, while there is a certain mystique around a secret intelligence service, we know our bearings, we have our bearings. We care deeply about what we do. We’re here for Australia. We’re for Australians. We serve with pride. That’s the message I want to send.