Is ASIS feeling unloved? Foreign spy agency boss sees the benefits of being open

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday July 30, 2019

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Keeping mum is business as usual for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) but its director-general has decided there are also benefits to popping up in public from time to time.

“No media and no profile presents its own problems, so here I am,” says ASIS chief Paul Symon, speaking at length in a podcast produced by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

The rare interview was handled by public policy expert Alan Gyngell, the president of the institute and a former head of the Office of National Assessments — a central agency in the intelligence community now superceded by the Office of National Intelligence.

There are two reasons ASIS might want to be slightly better known in the community: public confidence and recruitment, both of which came up in the long conversation.

Paul Symon.

The agency’s public image has obviously been tarnished over recent years by ongoing publicity around the case of former officer Witness K, who revealed ASIS bugged the East Timor government’s cabinet in 2004 in a bid to gain leverage in negotiations over oil and gas rights.

Both the officer and their original lawyer, former ACT attorney-general Bernard Collaery, now face serious charges over the affair while many others see K as a heroic whistleblower.

Symon notes the key risk of such publicity is it “fundamentally undermines bilateral relationships” in most cases, as it did when East Timorese people heard the tale. He seems keen to shake off the nefarious image.

Asked why the public should accept foreign spies didn’t break the law or act contrary to Australian “values” the head of ASIS says the question of public confidence is “really important” to him.

“And I think one of the reasons that agencies should take the opportunity every once in a while to talk to the public, as we are today, about values, about legality, about propriety, about internal culture, is it does give the public some sense of the type of people we are and the type of organisations that we we run,” he adds.

Risk management

According to Symon, the “accountability and the governance that we have in Australia is quite profound” and the organisation is very cautious about managing risks, although he did not really explain how it approached ethical questions.

“Firstly, I would say that most accountability actually comes from inside the organisation, the scrutiny that we put our people under, the way that proposals come forward, the way that senior officers test all of the underlying assumptions behind the plans or the proposals that come forward, the way that we have a framework of risk and risk management…”

Sceptical citizens will be pleased to know ASIS officers employ the international risk assessment standard ISO 31000, lay out proposals and potential pitfalls on whiteboards and have spirited discussions about the best way to find out what the government wants to know.

The most senior officers provide a voice of experience in these long-running discussions and in general, his employees “spend a lot of time managing risk, and holding people to account for the way in which they have articulated the risk”.

“I think that’s the foundation of accountability for ASIS,” he says, noting the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Margaret Stone also has “very intrusive” powers to oversee the agency.


“She could literally walk in now and demand to see whatever she wants to see, and we are absolutely required under the law to hand that over to her,” the ASIS chief says of Stone — and he thinks she exercises those powers wisely.

But, as former inspector-general Vivienne Thom reflected after finishing up in the role, the IGIS also has a similar challenge to ASIS itself in terms of public confidence: it’s very secretive.

“An ongoing dilemma for intelligence oversight is the matter of credibility and reputation,” Thom wrote.

“Unlike ombudsmen and most anti-corruption bodies, intelligence oversight bodies cannot generally publish comprehensive inquiry reports or data about inspection regimes. It is a necessary feature of intelligence work that to make investigations public could compromise operations or capabilities, prejudice security, damage Australia’s relations with other countries and endanger lives.”

“But in my view as much of this work as can be made public should be made public so as to build and maintain confidence in intelligence oversight. Every year I had robust discussions with agencies about what could go in the IGIS annual report. Agencies argued forcefully for adverse material to be omitted and I needed to remind them that public embarrassment about maladministration was not in itself prejudicial to security.”

The extreme secrecy provisions attached to the inspector-general’s work means it often leaves complainants unsatisfied, according to Thom, and she notes any government body is often assumed to be “inept” in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

It’s not a total wall of silence, but near enough. Symon briefly commented to The Weekend Australian in April about an inquiry into “frontier culture” that developed in the Middle East, where he was formerly the commander of Australian forces.

Thom noted former senator John Faulkner published some cogent ideas on how to strengthen intelligence oversight, including a stronger parliamentary committee, but said she saw no “serious structural deficiencies” in the oversight framework. “In my experience intelligence agencies do not systemically misuse their powers. But nevertheless controversy and suspicion persists.”

According to Symon, the current IGIS is no soft touch. “She’s hard on us, and rightly so. I have no problem with that whatsoever.”

He says the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security mainly wants to talk about more mundane organisational matters like the budget or how the agency deals with its “millions of datasets” and the privacy policies it applies, or its all-important risk management framework.

“It’s mainly to do with our settings with our workforce, with diversity, with gender, with workplace health and safety issues, assuring themselves that we have the right practices in place.”

Recruitment pitch

The head of ASIS also takes the opportunity to encourage potential foreign spies to apply for jobs, describing the role at great length and the diverse kinds of people who make the cut, as well as trying to give some insight into the spying life.

He explained his officers come from diverse career backgrounds — from tradies to techies, brilliant lawyers to wealthy business executives and so on – and shared some personal attributes like being “quiet achievers” who aren’t hungry for glory.

There is internal recognition, he says, speaking of a “little tink of glasses” to celebrate a job well done and the “humour and the enjoyment” of being in on some very big secrets.

“I can’t quite put my finger on it but when you’ve met a really good intelligence officer, and you’ve been conversing with them, you walk away from the conversation going, ‘You know, I divulged far more than I had intended to.'”

The main role of ASIS is collecting foreign intelligence. This involves trying to understand the capabilities and intentions of other actors in the world. The first can be understood to some degree through open-source information, but the second is harder.

“What is being said in forums, what is being said overtly, as we know, both in our public lives and in our private lives, is not always the same as what we’re saying behind closed doors,” explains the director-general.

“And we very much look to build relationships with individuals, well placed individuals that can help us understand what the thinking is behind closed doors – what, under a set certain set of circumstances might be the option or preferred option that a government might pursue.”

He says ASIS keeps up with the latest in technology and the digital disruption of everything around it by watching where the venture capital is flowing, in the hope of working with promising tech start-ups to build up “a spiral of diverse technologies” that might be useful.

In addition to espionage, Symon says ASIS performs five other roles: responding to kidnappings of Australians; backchannel communications with other spy agencies; extremely sensitive diplomatic communications between the government and other states, or non-state actors; building the intelligence capability of neighbouring nations; and achieving miscellaneous policy objectives.

‘We can be a tool of government’

“Under our act, the government can direct us to achieve certain policy objectives – it might be … disrupting people smuggling businesses and the like – but within our mandate, we are we’re able to do that.”

In terms of governance,  ASIS is guided by the government of the day through its national security committee and the intelligence agencies responsible for assessment: the ONI and the Defence Intelligence Organisation.

Symon, as a former head of DIO, agreed with Gyngell that the central agencies of the intelligence community had to call the tune. However, he now sees it from the other side.

“When you run a collection agency, you sometimes, in your darker moments, pull your hair out and go, ‘What don’t the assessment agencies understand about how hard it is to get some of this intelligence that they’re after?’

“This is not about, you know, sidling up to someone in a cocktail party and reporting it back. It’s very different than that. And so … what we do requires a lot of discipline, a lot of planning [and] the management of risk in trying to answer those intelligence requirements.”

The long conversation covers a range of other topics like the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement with other anglophone nations and the agency’s relationships with the Australian Defence Force and the diplomatic corps. Symon says he has a “tremendous working relationship” with Francis Adamson, the “fabulous secretary” of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Gyngell notes the relationship with DFAT has not always been the best, and the ASIS boss says he takes it very seriously and makes sure he does not exceed their risk appetite because if something goes wrong, diplomats and the foreign minister have to clean up the mess.

Gyngell also points out the secret intelligence service does more than just collect information; it is also an “action organisation” pursuing secretive goals for the government.

“Under our mandate, we can do both,” says the ASIS chief. “So we can be a tool of government in a deniable and covert way to achieve an outcome.

“We’re not the silver bullet. We shouldn’t be the agency of choice to do that. But in the golf bag, with lots of clubs, there is a place for an organisation like like ASIS.”

The full podcast is available from the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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