The Australian Secret Intelligence Service: purposes and principles
1 Nov 2020|

‘Spies cannot be usefully employed without a certain intuitive sagacity. They cannot be properly managed without benevolence and straightforwardness. Without subtle ingenuity of mind, one cannot make certain of the truth of their reports. Be subtle! Be subtle! And use your spies for every kind of business.’

— Sun Tzu, The art of war, circa 500 BC

Spies go in and out of fashion, but they never go out of business. And in the second of our interviews, Australia’s top spy discusses how that business is conducted today.

The director-general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Paul Symon, talks about the purposes of ASIS:

  • spying to collect human intelligence overseas
  • engaging in intelligence diplomacy through partnerships and exchanges with foreign intelligence services around the world
  • conducting disruption and counterintelligence activities as directed by the Australian government.

The ASIS ambit runs from terrorists to people smugglers, from the nature of foreign leaders to the operational needs of the Australian Defence Force.

The jargon for what the service seeks is HUMINT (human intelligence), still searching for the ‘foreknowledge’ Sun Tzu so prized 2,500 years ago—to understand the nature of individuals and the thinking of governments, as Symon observes:

Humans will develop trusting relationships and share secrets—they are willing to build a relationship with a service like ours that cultivates, recruits and validates them. There is a relationship that builds. So when you’re trying to understand senior leaders around the region, or further afield, you’re trying to understand the way they’re thinking, their vision for their country, the risks that they see, and the opportunities they see. Those sorts of conversations are normally held in inner circles, and are between humans, and will always be that way.

The job of ASIS officers deployed overseas is to develop agents willing to share secrets. Why are people willing to betray their country’s secrets? Symon’s response:

I would argue that if you’re in a closed society then there is a stronger possibility that you will be concerned about the direction of the country. If people become leaders of everything in their country, if power is concentrated and centralised, then ultimately you become responsible for everything. And you actually become responsible for the way in which your citizens perceive leadership.

So there is an interesting medium- to long-term dimension to this; as a general rule, closed societies run the risk of a greater number of individuals willing to betray the secrets of their country, because they are not happy, they don’t get a voice. We get a voice every three years, we go down to the local school and we vote. But there are a lot of people that don’t. That is one motivation.

ASIS is ‘playing attack’ overseas, Symon says, and while the margins between attack and defence are close, ‘we believe that we still have a marginal advantage’ in getting secrets.

Technology shifts the tradecraft, in an era of great-power competition driving a multipolar contest. Much is happening in the ‘grey zone’ (an area of focus of Australia’s 2020 strategic update). Symon explains:

The grey zone really is increasingly being used in the lexicon to reflect the fact that we are in this environment of coercion short of conflict. And that is keenly felt inside the intelligence community, whether it is on the defence or the offence. The other comment I would make is that it’s often a term that the military is using, and I think our military and the other militaries around the world are thinking very, very carefully around coercion short of conflict and the role of the military.

The legal framework for Australia’s spies is the Intelligence Services Act 2001, which gives ASIS these functions:

  • obtain and communicate intelligence about the capabilities, intentions or activities of people or organisations outside Australia
  • assist the ADF in support of military operations and cooperate with the ADF on intelligence                   
  • conduct counterintelligence activities               
  • liaise with intelligence or security services of other countries
  • undertake such other activities as the foreign minister directs relating to the capabilities, intentions or activities of people or organisations outside Australia.

ASIS is accountable to the foreign minister, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. Symon says the inspector-general has the powers of a standing royal commission with constant access to ASIS computer systems.

Symon says ASIS officers must understand the law and the purpose of the service, and provide a detailed written record of everything they do:

If you looked at our internal correspondence, literally all of our activities are written up in great detail—and when I say great detail, I am not only talking about the nature of the meeting with an agent and the conversation or intelligence or information which is passed, but considerable detail about body language, personal life, all of that is recorded. Because we always want to validate, to check, that all the information we are getting is accurate. That the agents themselves are at a point in their life where they are not getting distracted or not being coerced—there is a lot of things that we are checking on as we build a relationship with our agents. Everything is very well written down inside the service.