This article by Dr Will Stoltz first appeared in The Australian on 7 May 2022.
Some reading the word ‘ASIS’ may assume a spelling error of ‘ASIO’ – the acronym for Australia’s much better-known domestic security service. Such is the invisibility of our foreign spy agency in the historical and cultural consciousness of Australians. But in considering how we are to find peace in the face of hostility from China and Russia, Australians will need to look anew at the work of their secret service, which includes foreign espionage and covert action.
ASIS’s obscurity is partially due to the efforts of successive governments to keep hidden its highly classified operations, including discouraging media reporting on the agency. Despite being created in 1952 ASIS was not officially revealed until 1977.
ASIS has only rarely featured publicly, and typically in relation to several historic scandals. These include accusations of supporting a CIA-backed coup in Chile in 1973; a botched armed exercise at a Melbourne hotel in 1983; and an alleged operation in the 2000s to listen-in on the Timor Leste cabinet during gas treaty negotiations.
These scandals aside, there are no significant cultural portrayals to give Australians a sense of the work and history of ASIS. As a result Australians can be forgiven for having a degree of incuriousness about ‘the Service’. There are, after all, no Australian James Bonds, George Smileys, or Jack Ryans to drive the myth-making around Australia’s overseas spies.
Yet, as ASIS marks its 70th birthday, there is a need for Australians to better understand its work. This is because our more uncertain world, driven by Chinese and Russian aggression, has raised the demand for ASIS’s services higher than at any time since its creation during the Cold War.
While the specifics of its current operations may never be known to us, we can learn a lot about the purpose and likely impact of the Service by looking at why the Menzies government first created ASIS, in 1952.
ASIS was the brainchild of Menzies’ cabinet minister Richard Casey and Alfred Deakin Brookes, the wile grandson and namesake of Australia’s second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin.
As a young diplomat in London in the 1920s Casey had worked closely with senior officials from Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6) and maintained an abiding interest in the idea of an Australian secret intelligence service throughout his career.
Casey had seen firsthand how MI6 intelligence from well-placed human sources improved the policy decisions of Britain’s cabinet, including in wartime. He was also envious of Britain’s ability to secretly shape international events using what he called their “black arts”: covert actions to distribute propaganda, change foreign governments, and deploy paramilitary units abroad.
Brookes had served as an army intelligence officer in the Second World War and afterwards would argue for a secret service while on the staff of Labor’s minister for external affairs, H.V. Evatt. Evatt was perennially suspicious of the aristocratic elite who ran British intelligence so was predictably unsupportive.
However, with the election of Robert Menzies’ coalition government in 1949, Brookes found a more receptive audience. Afterall, Menzies, who had described himself as “British to the bootstraps”, was more comfortable with the secret “empire men” of Whitehall.
As a family friend of Menzies, Brookes lobbied the Prime Minister to create ASIS during walks together at Mount Macedon. And with Casey as his patron in Cabinet, Brookes would become the inaugural Director-General of ASIS when it was created on 13 May 1952. He was just 32 years old.
Menzies created ASIS through an order of the Governor-General’s Executive Council, meaning the Prime Minister had it signed into being without informing Parliament. This not only reflected the high secrecy of the Service but also the often unilateral way Menzies wielded the executive power of the prime ministership.
Menzies did not regard it as necessary for ordinary members of Parliament to know that an Australian secret intelligence service had been established. However, creating ASIS without legislation had the potentially unlawful result of the government concealing the Service’s funding in the defence budget to keep it secret from Parliament.
In his first top secret directive to Brookes, Menzies outlined that the purpose of ASIS would be the collection of “secret intelligence” on overseas targets - aka espionage - and the carrying out of “special operations” that “afford no proof of the instigation of the government”, described today as covert action.
Unlike other Australian intelligence agencies, ASIS’s core functions – espionage and covert action – haven’t changed since its founding. In this sense ASIS is something of a quaint inheritance from the Anglo-Australian statesmen of the 1950s – men like Menzies and Casey – who saw the cunning and daring-do of Britain’s Special Operations Executive and MI6 as something to be replicated in Australia’s part of the world.
That is not to suggest ASIS is an anachronism. Indeed, there is something very modern, almost prescient, in ASIS’s purpose that makes it very pertinent to today’s world. Like MI6, ASIS is charged both with foreign spying as well as the carrying out of deniable operations to secretly shape foreign governments and other actors affecting Australia’s interests.
Australia’s use of ASIS’s covert action function has been limited and under some governments practically non-existent. Covert action in its most strategic form is about secretly pushing the world in a more favourable direction, and outside of the Cold War and counter-terrorism Australia has had little need for such efforts. Until now.
Today, Xi Jinping’s China is seeking to dictate on his terms how the world should be run, with support from like-minded authoritarian states like Russia. Co-opting and corrupting smaller states, particularly in South East Asia and the South Pacific, is a clear part of how China is seeking to build a network of governments around the world willing to kowtow to Xi’s agenda. The contest for the future of these states will occur openly as well as in the shadows.
As one state-backed publication describes, China seeks to “win without fighting” by “manipulating countries’ values [and] national spirit to encourage them to abandon their social system,”. Bribing and blackmailing officials, threatening Chinese ex-pats, using so-called ‘debt trap’ loans, and distributing propaganda are all measures deployed by China’s government against Australia’s neighbours and friends.
Importantly, recent research into China’s interference shows that where China can’t win over smaller countries, it has no hesitation at using false-flag and other operations to weaken social cohesion and destabilise governments. While Australia is more resilient than most to such foreign interference, its closest neighbours are not, and these countries are a clear focus for China.
Recent revelations that China had been secretly seeking a military access agreement with the Solomon Islands shows the priority it places on controlling the South Pacific in particular. There are clearly few limits to what China is willing to do to secure these sorts of agreements.
This is because a foothold in the South Pacific, like a naval base, would give China new options to target and threaten Australia including cutting off commercial sea routes. It would also allow China to monitor and interfere with American military deployments to Australia’s north. As Australia’s primary area of strategic responsibility, the South Pacific is also where our allies expect us to lead the most.
Because of China’s use of undeclared, subversive activities to achieve its goals against Australia’s neighbours, the Australian government won’t always be able to respond overtly. Indeed, to manage concerns about military and diplomatic escalation it will often prefer not to. It will also need a wider range of intelligence sources to understand China’s activities.
Whoever is prime minister after the election will doubtless turn to ASIS for more options to detect and disrupt China’s malicious interference against Australia’s closest neighbours.
ASIS can devise all manner of potential responses, from ways to back political candidates abroad, cultivate high-value sources, discredit Chinese agents, and conduct sabotage. But whether these options proceed or not will depend on the risk appetite of Australia’s government. ASIS’s work can involve putting intelligence officers and their sources in harm’s way. The risk of exposure can also carry heavy diplomatic costs.
Yet the costs of inaction are also high, especially in the face of China’s unfettered campaign to coerce and co-opt governments across South East Asia and the South Pacific. A full spectrum response of open and secret statecraft is required and more needs to be done to build understanding in parliament and the wider public as to what is at stake. Speaking more about the threat, and the role of agencies like ASIS, will help establish a mandate for the government to act and justify continuation of ASIS’s extraordinary powers.
The idea of Australia stealing secrets and covertly shaping foreign affairs might seem unsavoury, even objectionable, to some. But when our leaders have to make rapid decisions amidst a storm of contested information, secret intelligence can save lives or stop wars. In a contest against powerful authoritarian states seeking to sow chaos in our region, covert action can help enforce peace.
That ASIS has been maintained for seventy years shows that successive governments have recognised the abiding need for its hidden services. Now, in a time when the need for ASIS has perhaps never been greater, Australians may need to reconcile placing new levels of trust in our most secret national asset.