The Australian Secret Intelligence Service: spying for Australia
8 Nov 2020|

Spies are prey to principle, pride, passion and payment. Betrayal is driven by everything from cause to cash.

In a history of espionage, The anatomy of a spy, Michael Smith writes that spies spy for sex, money, patriotism, revenge or because it’s ‘the right thing to do’; spies can be ‘unconscious agents’ or ‘adventurers, fantasists and psychopaths’.

Behold the world of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and its director-general, Paul Symon.

In the ASIS interviews with ASPI, Australia’s chief spy has covered the formation of the service and its purposes and principles. In the third interview, Symon talks about spies and espionage, discussing:

  • how ASIS recruits foreigners to spy for Australia, emphasising the safety and security of those agents
  • the qualities ASIS looks for in recruiting its Australian officers
  • the tradecraft and ethics of spying
  • the growth of ASIS from a small firm to a mid-sized corporation.

Symon says some spies just walk in and volunteer: ‘History is replete with spies both good and bad who have literally been a walk-in and wanted to have that relationship.’

Seeking agents, ASIS considers datasets as it ponders people, ‘looking at profiles, thinking about the intelligence questions that we’re trying to answer, who might assist us and might be interested in assisting us answer those questions’. Then the careful work of ‘cultivation, potentially recruitment, and validation’.

The process, Symon remarks, isn’t that different to the way journalists cultivate sources. My response is that journos, like spies, want to get at the secrets, to understand what’s going on and who’s making it happen.

Yet while hacks and spies track across the same terrain, their purposes are different. What matters to hacks is what they can publish and make public; what matters to spies is what they can keep secret. Symon responds:

That’s very true. But at its very heart, your contacts are relying on your skills and your tradecraft, in some cases to project their voice if that’s what they want, or in some cases to protect their voice. In our case it’s not to project a voice but, if you like, the sanctity of the relationship, the trust, the care that we put into securing that relationship and making sure that their personal safety and security is uppermost in our mind. It’s a very key component of what we do.

A foreign correspondent axiom is that you can usually pick the spies masquerading as journalists: they never have deadline fever, rushing off to file; and spies are more willing to pay for all the booze, unlike hacks who must align thirst with expense account (the anatomy of a spy needs a category devoted to alcohol).

Note a nomenclature point in Oz spying: the usage of officers or agents; both are spies, but different.

ASIS recruits and trains Australian officers to send overseas, where their job is to cultivate and run agents. Agents can be those adventurers, fantasists and psychopaths—as long as they produce the goods. Being a narcissist with a giant ego might make you the perfect agent; the same traits in an Australian officer would set off alarm bells in Canberra.

In hiring Australians to serve as its officers, Symon says, ASIS wants a diversity of profiles because there’s no such thing as a typical spy:

We used to have a banner for ASIS which was ‘IQ + EQ = ASIS’. It’s not a bad banner. There are some parts of the intelligence organisation where you can accommodate a higher IQ [intelligence quotient] and a lower EQ [emotional intelligence quotient]. In ASIS, it has got to be pretty balanced, so ultimately they’re the qualities that we’re after. Someone, individuals who are intelligent but also have a very good emotional quotient and can read a situation, can read relationships. I need people with a really good antenna, because at the end of the day a lot of judgements are pushed down to the individual—they’ve got to make some very fine judgements.

The ASIS officer serving overseas must work to a strict set of rules of tradecraft, Symon observes, and ‘a strong internal discipline to the way we do the work that we do’. But that disciplined, rule-obeying Australian officer must find foreign citizens ready to break the rules. To a question about the tension and the dissonance of that officer–agent relationship, Symon responds:

The agents that they are dealing with, they are breaking the laws of their country, that is true. There is no tension in the eyes of our officers as to what is being asked of in that relationship—there’s a lot of work goes into making sure that both sides are comfortable and that there’s an understanding. We would never ask an agent to do something that is improper or illegal in the sense of undertaking violent activities or anything like that. We are acquiring intelligence. So, I don’t see that there is a contradiction or a problem there.

Symon says ASIS has strengthened its ethical framework, especially when it comes to seeking to penetrate terrorist groups or recruit people inside terrorist organisations. An officer has avenues to ‘opt out’ or to have a discussion ‘about that relationship between ethics, morals and what they’re being asked to do with an agent’.

The total resourcing for ASIS in the 2020–21 budget is $630 million. Approaching its 70th anniversary in 2022, Symon says the service has grown from a small entity to a mid-sized corporation.

In its early decades, he says, ASIS was ‘a small family unit in many ways. There was a kinship, there was a size that went with the organisation, [and] there was a budget that went with the organisation that meant it had all of the hallmarks of just being a big family. A small family and then a big family.’

The Hope royal commissions in the 1970s and 1980s brought the intelligence community into the public spotlight and confirmed officially that ASIS existed.

Since then, Symon says:

ASIS has stepped from being a big family to being a mid-sized corporation, quite frankly. And we’re not a big corporation; we’re a mid-sized corporation. We like to ensure that we have very flat structures, and we don’t admire bureaucracy; we don’t admire processes for processes’ sake. We do the minimum necessary to do our job efficiently and effectively, knowing that processes and bureaucracy support rather than hinder good organisations. So, that’s how we’ve changed. And the path forward, given, I think, the successes we’ve achieved, looks very promising to me.