Australia’s foreign spies could use force for operational reasons under proposed changes

Officers of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and their agents would be allowed to use force for the good of their mission, not just to protect themselves and others, under new legislative amendments that are expected to pass.

The opposition is reportedly inclined to support the proposed changes, which come over 14 years since the relaxation of strict controls on when and why Australia’s overseas spies may resort to violence, allowing them to defend themselves and their agents, but not to plan on using force as part of their operations.

If the changes go through, the Minister for Foreign Affairs would be able to “specify additional persons, such as a hostage, who may be protected by an ASIS staff member or agent” according to Marise Payne, the current minister.

More importantly, the amendments would “allow an ASIS staff member or agent performing specified activities outside Australia to be able to use reasonable force in the course of their duties” — such as when “someone poses a risk to an operation”.

Until the 2004 reforms, ASIS officers were essentially banned from using weapons due to a spectacularly bungled training exercise by an earlier generation of foreign spies at a Sheraton hotel in Melbourne in 1983, timed just right to engender maximum blowback — while the second Hope royal commission was examining intelligence and security agencies.

As prime minister at the time, Bob Hawke told parliament in 1985 the agency was made to get rid of its guns and bombs, forget about dashing around with machine guns, breaking down doors and rescuing hostages, and stick to collecting useful information overseas from human sources.

Two decades later, when John Howard was PM, Alexander Downer was Foreign Minister, and Middle Eastern terrorists the new number-one enemy, it was decided that ASIS officers should be allowed to arm themselves and train to use weapons or physical violence but only in a limited range of defensive situations.

This reform also had some wiggle room: it authorised them to join operations involving the use of force for other ends if the missions were led by others such as Defence Force agencies or foreign partners like the Central Intelligence Agency, and as long as they weren’t pulling triggers or setting off explosions themselves.

Payne argues more expanded powers are necessary now for broadly similar reasons put forward by Downer shortly after Australia followed the United States into a series of controversial military interventions in the Middle East. The covert agency is on the front line of efforts to manage the cascading consequences for Australia.

“Our ASIS officers often work in dangerous locations, including under warlike conditions, to protect Australia and our interests,” she said in a statement. “As the world becomes more complex, the overseas operating environment for ASIS also becomes more complex.”

Since 2004, “successive governments have asked ASIS to do more in response to national security priorities, in new places and in new circumstances unforeseen 14 years ago” according to the minister.

“Like the existing ability to use weapons for self-defence, these amendments will be an exception to the standing prohibitions against the use of violence or use of weapons by ASIS,” explained Payne.

“The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security will continue to have important oversight roles of ASIS’s authorisations and guidelines on the use of weapons and use of force.”

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