Australian Security Intelligence Organisation

From SourceWatch
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Australia's domestic counterintelligence service, is responsible (in coordination with the Australian Federal Police) for preventing espionage by foreign powers, and attempting to monitor and prevent terrorist and other political violence. It is approximately equivalent to Britain's counterintelligence service, MI5. Like MI5, ASIO officers have no police or arrest powers, and are not armed.

Its sister orginisation is the espionage service ASIS, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, roughly analogous to the UK's MI6.

ASIO is operated by the Attorney-General's Department, and its current Director-General is Paul O'Sullivan.


Prior to ASIO's establishment in 1949, several forms of security and intelligence services existed in Australia, most of them extensions and branches of the British military establishment. The first was the Central Counter-Espionage Bureau, a counterintelligence agency with responsiblity over the whole of the then-British Empire, including Australia.

The Australian Commonwealth Police (later the Commonwealth Investigations Branch) were established in 1919, and security intelligence operations were included in their remit.

Project VENONA

The VENONA project was a joint code-breaking operation run by the United States and the United Kingdom from 1943 to 1949. In the late 1940s, VENONA's operations uncovered sensitive British and Australian government data being transmitted through Soviet diplomatic channels. Officers from the British Security Service, MI5, were sent to assist and liaise with the Australian government, and the leak was tracked to a spy ring operating from the Soviet Embassy in Canberra.

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 the organisation that was to become ASIO.

The operation to crack the Soviet spy ring in Canberra was to consume much of the new organisation's resources during the 1950's, and became known internally as "The Case".

Among MI5's and ASIO's main suspects 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. No one was charged as a result of the case, as, incredibly, at the time Australia had no laws against espionage in peacetime.

"The Case" took a sensational turn in 1954, with the defection of the head of Soviet espionage in Australia, Vladimir Petrov and his wife.

The Petrov Affair

See main article: The Petrov Affair.

ASIO was instrumental in arranging the defection of Vladimir Petrov, Third Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Australia. Two weeks later, his wife, also an intelligence officer at the embassy, was sensationally seized from the Soviet MVD by ASIO officers when their plane stopped for refuelling in Darwin. The operation was so public, it was reported around the world - ASIO was no longer such a "secret" organisation.

Royal Commission on Espionage

Following the defection of the Petrovs, Prime Minister Robert Menzies called a Royal Commission into espionage in Australia on 13 April 1954. The Commission sat for over a year, and reviewed thousands of documents and interviews, producing over 5000 pages of transcript.

The principal conclusions of the Commission were that:

  • the 'Petrov Papers' (the files that Petrov had taken from the Soviet Embassy) were authentic documents and the Petrovs were truthful witnesses;
  • from its establishment in 1943 to its departure in 1954, the Soviet Embassy in Canberra had been used for espionage in Australia; and
  • the only Australians who knowingly assisted Soviet espionage were Communists.

ASIO mole

In November 2004, Former KGB Major-General Oleg Kalugin told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Four Corners program that in late 1970s and early 1980s, ASIO had a KGB mole in its ranks, which made the agency a backdoor to US and British intelligence. The United States, upon realising this had pulled back on the information given to ASIO.

After a strenuous internal audit, ASIO accused George Sadil, a Russian interpreter at ASIO for 25 years, as the mole after secret documents were found in his home. In winter 1993 Federal Police arrested Sadil, however in 1994 the case against him collapsed. Sadil's profile did not match that of the mole, and prosecutors were unable to establish any kind of money trail between him and the KGB

It is believed that ASIO also suspected another agent, now retired, but have made no attempt to arrest him. The mole remains unpunished to this day.


ASIO has been accused of conducting an agenda against the left side of politics since its inception. In particular, during the investigation of "The Case", circumstantial links were noted between staff of the leader of the Australian Labor Party at the time, H.V. Evatt, and the Australian Communist Party (and hence to the Soviet spy ring). Evatt later accused Prime Minister Robert Menzies of arranging the Petrov defection to discredit him, leading to a disasterous split in the Labor Party.

In the 1960s, ASIO was accused of taking its eye off the ball because of its preoccupation with targeting the left, which included protesters against the Vietnam War, Labor politicians and various writers, artists and actors. It was alleged that ASIO had compiled a list of 10,000 suspected Communist sympathisers who would be rounded up and interned should the Cold War heat up.

Following a series of bomb attacks from 1963-1970 on the Yugoslav consulates in Australia by a Croatian far-right militia, the Ustaše, ASIO was accused of concealing information on the group by no less than its own boss: Lionel Murphy, the Attorney-General in Gough Whitlam's Labor government. On 15 March 1973, Murphy and the Commonwealth Police raided the ASIO offices in Melbourne. The raid was a disaster, and the ensuing uproar rocked both ASIO and the Whitlam government.

A few weeks after the September 11 2001 bombings, ASIO's negligence led it to mistakenly raiding the home of Bilal Daye and his wife. ASIO's 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.

Conspiracy theories

Due to their secretive nature, security and intelligence agencies such as ASIO are often the subject of conspiracy theories regarding their supposed actions. Accusations have been made that such agencies organise or allow terrorist acts to take place to justify their existence, or to increase their budget and powers.

One such occasion was the bombing of the Sydney Hilton on 13 February 1978, one of the only domestic terrorist incidents on Australian soil, in which three people died. Former police officer Terry Griffiths, who was injured in the explosion, accused ASIO of either orchestrating the bombing, or being aware of it and allowing it to proceed. Griffiths has repeatedly called for an inquiry into the bombing, particularly after the three men accused and convicted of the bombing were cleared and freed. [1]

Post-2001 and the War on Terror

Template:Wikinews Like its American and British counterparts, ASIO has come under public scrutiny and criticism since 2001.

The passing of anti-terrorism legislation in 2003 and 2004, which gave ASIO and other police and intelligence agencies greater powers, has been criticised by civil liberties advocates. Among the most controversial of the new powers granted to ASIO is the ability to question and detain suspects without charge, with severe penalties for those who reveal that questioning or detention has taken place.

In 2005, the Australian government announced its intention to substantially increase ASIO's operational budget in the order of tens of millions of dollars, with the aim of increasing the agency's staffing level to nearly 2,000 personnel - double its 2005 level and nearly triple the number of staff in 2001.

In September 2005, ASIO faced intense criticism from civil libertarians after issuing an adverse security assessment of Scott Parkin, a visiting US peace activist, triggering his deportation.

On November 8th, 2005, ASIO, along with the Australian Federal Police participated in the arrest of 17 people believed to have been plotting a major terrorist act [2].


  • Pat Flanagan (ed.), Big Brother or Democracy: The Case for the Abolition of ASIO (University of Adelaide, 1979).

Other SourceWatch resources

  • Overseas counterparts
    • MI5 UK Security Service
    • FBI USA Federal Bureau of Investigation
    • CIA USA Central Intelligence Agency
    • CSIS Canadian Security and Intelligence Service

Contact details

ASIO Central Office
GPO Box 2176
Phone: (02) 6249 6299
Phone: 1800 020 648 (toll free)


  • David McKnight, Australia's Spies and Their Secrets, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994. ISBN 1863736611.

External links

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch articles