ASIS headquarters in Canberra

ASIS headquarters in Canberra

ASIS is the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, a federal government intelligence agency.  Established by the Menzies Government in 1952, and located within the Department of Froeign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), ASIS is a counterpart to ASIO, but it spies outside rather than inside Australia.  Its functions are described (and curtailed) by section 6 of the Intelligence Services Act 2001.  ASIS is Australia’s equivalent of MI6 in the UK or the CIA in the US.  Journalist Brad Crouch has also described it as “like the KGB” in the former USSR, and accused it of keeping “dossiers on Australian citizens” (Sunday Telegraph, 26 Dec. 1993).

Numerous criticisms levelled at the controversial spy organisation over its 60-year lifespan include:

  • training PNG troops to suppress independence movements in West Papua and Bougainville;
  • destabilising the Aquino Government in the Philippines
  • supporting MI6 in the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War

ASIS agents are armed and trained in ‘new generation interrogation’ methods.

Aside from its Canberra headquarters, ASIS is thought to have ‘about ten overseas stations,’ mostly in Asia, and four facilities in Australia, one of which is at Swan Island, off Queenscliff.  ASIS shares the Swan Island base with the Department of Defence, but the exact nature of ASIS activities on the island is unknown.

In 1994, ABC-TV’s Four Corners programme identified Swan Island as,

“where ASIS officers do much of their paramilitary training – mastering the Service’s complex coding and filing systems which are identical to those in the British Secret Service, how to survive an interrogation, how to disable or kill an enemy.”

In an anonymous interview with Four Corners, an officer described how:

“Frankly, you never experience conditions as bad as you do on training.  The idea is to make you make all the mistakes in training that you could ever possibly make so that you know then hopefully what not to do overseas.  The training course is very good.  One exercise alone requires the assistance of something like 380 people. It’s an immensely  complicated exercise.  Bearing in mind ASIS is a very small organisation and it probably only trains 4 to 6 officers a year and the training costs would probably exceed 4 or 5 million dollars.”

A Wilkie, Axis of Deceit (Penguin 2010)In 2004, The Sydney Morning Herald noted how:

“intelligence whistle-blower Andrew Wilkie wrote in his book Axis of Deceit recently that ASIS trainees are taught to cope ‘if things turn nasty … by spending sessions at the firing range or by enduring long hours of none-too-gentle interrogation training’. One former ASIS agent told the Herald role-playing sometimes got so enthusiastic trainees would find themselves beaten up during the exercises. The intelligence ombudsman, Ian Carnell, says he sat in on early stages of an ASIS course and found the emphasis to be more on ’emotional intelligence’.”

Further reading: Journalists Brian Toohey and William Pinwill wrote an unofficial history of ASIS titled Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (Heinemann 1990).