Foreign espionage: An Australian perspective
This article is more than 2 years old

Foreign espionage: An Australian perspective

To mark the 70th anniversary of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, ASIS Director-General Paul Symon addressed the Lowy Institute on the past, present and future of foreign espionage from an Australian perspective. He also spoke in conversation with Executive Director Michael Fullilove. 

On this page

Watch this video at YouTube


PAUL SYMON, Director-General, Australian Secret Intelligence Service: This speech will be more akin to a glance at the inner workings of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service rather than a forensic stare. We will use peripheral vision – you may, as an audience, need to occasionally read between the lines.

Nevertheless, let me begin with a true story. A story about a signature moment in the career of one of my officers. Such stories are rarely heard beyond those who’ve lived them. It is my hope that this will give you a bit more than a glance of ASIS’s mission and some of the quiet achievers who carry out that mission.

In late August last year, at 2am Kabul time, I received a secure message from one of my officers – let’s call her Jane – who was quietly enmeshed in the chaos at Kabul’s international airport. Jane’s message to me was short – “The team are well. Tired yet committed, while there are still friends to Australia outside the wire. The end is in sight and, while some of the scenes are horrific, the joy of getting people to safety is sustaining us.”

Jane’s particular role was to provide point-to-point secure, encrypted communications from me and other officers in Canberra, to other countries in the Middle East, and to the small team we had quietly inserted into Afghanistan.

Over an exhausting week, Jane had worked alongside other Australian agencies to pull off the largest ever emergency airlift in Australia’s history – over 4,100 people brought to safety from one of the most dangerous places in the world. Our friends in CIA and MI6 gave us great support too.

Jane and the ASIS team were some of the last coalition officers to leave Afghanistan. They left only after those for whom ASIS had direct responsibility were safe and in a third country.

We had followed through with our pact to our sources – that we will do everything we can to protect their identities and to care for their safety and welfare. Jane’s flight out of Kabul brought to a close one more chapter in ASIS’s history; once again, all of this kept secret at the time.

My response to Jane was even shorter than her message to me: “Good work. Get some sleep.” We are an agency of few words in a crisis. Committed to difficult missions and concerned for the welfare of our people. In sum, we don’t just work on the front line – we work beyond it.

This story highlights the fact that we contribute uniquely to whole-of-government efforts in pursuit of Australia’s national interests. Sitting behind that, we publish critical secret intelligence reports which need to be sent to the right people at the right time – in the Afghanistan context, that meant making sure that no time was lost warning people of danger.

Indeed, our work did save lives. ASIS demonstrated agility, innovation and sheer tenacity throughout the operation.

Which brings me to a further dimension of that story – it shows that foreign intelligence work is a serious business that demands fine judgment, steadfast nerves and an ability to cope with extreme pressure. Put simply, for ASIS, people, not machines, generate our greatest impact.

Paul Symon, Director General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, speaks at the Lowy Institute on 10 May 2022

Photo: Peter Morris/Lowy Institute

The events in Afghanistan reflect some future challenges for ASIS, being that the world is shifting beneath our feet, sometimes faster than we can dance. To continue our success into the future, ASIS must be able to predict changes and address them before they become a problem. We must stay one step ahead.

Today I’m going to address these themes – our mission, our people, our challenges – by taking a look at where we’ve come from, where we are today, and where we need to be tomorrow. The past, the present and the future seems an appropriate structure for any 70th anniversary speech.

ASIS was created on 13 May 1952. Prime Minister Menzies gave my predecessor - Alfred Deakin Brookes – unprecedented licence to build a team of quiet achievers to act in Australia’s interests. Our founding mission was “to obtain and distribute secret intelligence on foreign powers” and to “conduct special operations as may be required”. A ‘special operation’ was broadly described as one that “uses clandestine methods – normally unacknowledgeable – affording no proof of the instigation, or even connivance, of the government.” ASIS’s charter, signed by Menzies and framed in my office, makes it clear that efficiency and secrecy should be central to our organisation. At the time, Menzies went so far as to articulate that not even the prime minister should know the identity of our sources, or the case officers who run them.

RG Casey, the foreign minister at the time said: “A lot of these things seem to be rather mysterious – but in fact they are not – it is just a matter of helping the goodies and unhelping the baddies.” Friends, while much has changed over the last 70 years, I wish to assure you that in the nearly five years as Director-General ASIS, we still essentially ‘help the goodies and unhelp the baddies’.

A lot has changed over 70 years, and we have a more nuanced view of the world. Just as our alliances are still important to us, the last few months have underlined that fact that our adversaries are very real, and they do much of their work in the shadows.

While our diplomatic colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and other government departments, work to progress Australia’s interests by light, ASIS metaphorically works with and in the shadows. We do not, and will not cede this domain to our adversaries. Over 70 years, ASIS has become adept at working in this metaphorical darkness. We lift up stones and peer behind corners to discover the capabilities and intent of those who would wish to diminish Australia’s interests in pursuit of their own.

We operate without home ground advantage against adversaries who are willing to do whatever it takes, spend whatever it takes, to harm Australia’s interests.

I have seen the truth of it – our adversaries are spying on us. In Australia and abroad. And worse, they are seeking to weaken our institutions and bend our values.

I earnestly believe it is our values as an open democratic, rule-of-law nation that sets us apart. I stand here in front of you today as a transparent reflection of those values. ASIS should remain low profile but we should not have no profile. Without Australians having broader understanding of ASIS, we won’t be able to succeed in the mission entrusted to us since 1952.

Practically, this means calibrated engagement with Australians about their secret intelligence service. It means renewing ASIS’s social license with the public and assuring them that what we do is bounded by Australian law and is further bounded by the admixture of propriety, values and interests.

At its heart, ASIS conducts business that is synonymous with risk. We are built for this purpose. Not only in terms of our people, the way in which we train them, our processes and capabilities; but also, in terms of the rigorous oversight we receive.

These are some of the foundations that have kept our organisation ‘united in purpose’ and ‘undaunted by new horizons’ over the past 70 years.   This brings me to the present…How to characterise ASIS today.

Over many years I’ve met many truly impressive Australians. And I’m comfortable telling you that many of the most dedicated, intelligent and loyal Australians you could ever meet… are ASIS officers.

With me and my deputy-director generals excluded, the law protects the identity of ASIS officers. But because today is special I’ll tell you who they might be… They might be one of your family members, one of your neighbours, your classmates or former colleagues. They might be someone you know… but don’t know completely.

Depending on the city and the day, they might just be the person next to you on the train…or indeed next to you in this audience.

I can also tell you that somewhere in the world, right now, there is an ASIS officer taking serious risks – albeit deeply considered and mitigated as far as possible – to protect your rights and interests as an Australian.

Right now, I know, somewhere out there, maybe far from the comforts we are enjoying here in Bligh street, ASIS officers are working on strange streets, in bustling cafes, or hidden from plain view. Right now, they are using their training and expert experience to extract secrets that the Australian Government needs to know, and then quietly, carefully and covertly sending these secrets home.

Again and again, Australian foreign and defence policy has been informed by our access to such secrets – sometimes just in the nick of time.

Right now, for every one of these officers in the field, I have other specialists back in headquarters, working to conceive, facilitate, protect and process our operations. They are making sure our work is bound by Australian law, proper, ethical, valued, and always in the national interest.

My officers and their families are not doing these things without sacrifice. There is excitement in our work without doubt, but it comes at a cost. Right now, there will be ASIS officers feeling the heaviness of the burden they accepted in a career where they must not discuss their work, even to those nearest and dearest to them. And there are sharper burdens as well. ASIS’s staff welfare officers have fielded more than a few calls from worried partners. ASIS has back-up plans for our back-up plans, and we work hard to ensure things almost always work out okay. Unlike many organisations, it’s when things don’t work out okay that ASIS truly bonds.

Intelligence is a team pursuit. The team lifts and falls on the character, resilience and credibility of its members. Those who thrive in ASIS tend to care more about those beside them than in impressing those above them. It’s in these conversations with officers where you hear raw emotions, the passion, and that which motivates action. These characteristics I see in abundance in ASIS.

But let me share with you an uncomfortable truth.

In the next decade, the work of these officers will become more complex and challenging.

As we move forward, ASIS will need more officers with more diverse skills and backgrounds supported by more integrated capabilities. We are going to need to recruit and work with even more vigour and urgency than at any other point in our 70-year history. We need scale, agility and contemporary solutions to meet the new problems we will confront.

Paul Symon, Director-General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, speaks at the Lowy Institute on 10 May 2022

Photo: Peter Morris/Lowy Institute

This brings me to the future… What will ASIS’s identity and purpose be going forward? What are the most telling features of the future espionage environment? How should ASIS conduct espionage beyond the safety of our shores? Why would a young person today want to join ASIS next year, in 2030 or beyond? I have given considerable thought to these questions. I’m happy to share with you some of our observations. Contained within them are some salutary warnings.

First, high quality intelligence is in very high demand. The need for effective national intelligence – particularly the synthesis of quality collection and assessment - has never been more acute.

The world is experiencing more than just a realignment in power. The global rules-based order is being manipulated and subverted. The future will likely be less advantageous to Australia than that we once knew.

The world within which Australians seek prosperity, safety and sovereignty is marked by contest. In a difficult world, diplomacy remains vital and, in parallel, Australia must actively use intelligence to protect and advance its interests, prudently and determinedly.

Intelligence, with its ability to be covert, deniable and discreet, can provide government with a suite of options to reduce strategic surprise and further national objectives abroad – within the lawful bounds of its duties, and in tandem with diplomacy. In an increasingly complex strategic environment, this suite of options must necessarily grow to confront the threats we face. ASIS is ready for this.

ASIS benefits from espionage opportunities that emerge from the suppressed dissent within authoritarian states. When leaders abolish fixed political terms, for example, they become responsible and accountable for everything – including the disillusionment that emerges from within. This provides us an edge.

We notice that in closed societies top officials will always reinforce leaders’ biases and assumptions. That, after all, is the safest career path for them. Speaking truth to power is an enduring strength of our system.

Another observation though is that, at the same time as our operating environment has become more competitive and volatile, it has also become increasingly difficult to conduct human intelligence work. While it remains a core component of statecraft, it must adapt to meet the extraordinary challenges arising from the interaction of a complex strategic environment, intensified counter-intelligence efforts, and emergent and emerging technologies.

For a service like my own there is a near-existential dimension to technology risk.

The analogue systems and processes which spies of the past took for granted have been relegated to history, and we now live in a fundamentally digital era where our covert activities are increasingly discoverable.

In this technological sandbox, authoritarian regimes are having a heyday. Those so inclined are harnessing the booming IT economy to develop myriad forms of surveillance, and are using them for a range of ends, including public control and counter-espionage.

We cannot avoid or fight this wave of digital transformation – we must drop in on the wave and ride it. Specifically, HUMINT operators need to turn the tables by mastering technology to meet a range of functions and requirements.

Technologies from biotechnology, nanotechnology and quantum computing will not only be challenges but also keys to ASIS’s success.

My next observation goes to the challenge of ensuring intelligence reporting effectively informs policy-making, including where that policy is being made outside of classified systems.

Policymakers have access to an extraordinary array of sources on which to base their assessments, develop options, and implement decisions. It is a crowded space for policymakers who still only have the same number of hours in their working day. Human intelligence will need to provide the gems that reveal the heart of key issues and problems and to do this with increasing speed and in fit-for-purpose formats.

The private sector is increasingly capable of providing relevant intelligence to customers.

Within government we need to differentiate our offerings, and evolve to incorporate aspects of the commercial intelligence market into our business model.

Paul Symon, Director-General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, speaks at the Lowy Institute on 10 May 2022

Photo: Peter Morris/Lowy Institute

In this environment ASIS must be more forward-leaning in engaging Australian businesses and industry as we seek to work together to dissect and solve many of the challenges I’m outlining today.

My final observation is that the greatest challenge, but with the greatest prospective reward, is for intelligence agencies to maximise the human capital of our people and the collective strength of our partnerships.

Problem-solving lies at the heart of the intelligence profession. As such all ASIS officers must have a problem-solving mindset – one that uses imagination and curiosity, invention and discovery, to understand and describe a problem in a way that allows it to be solved.

Intelligence professionals need to be constant innovators, seeking new ways of work to improve both offence and defence. We won’t always get it right, but that is in the nature of an agency for which every activity has its own unique attributes.

This is also why a diverse workforce is so important to ASIS – people from different backgrounds approach different problems in different ways, and we must harness this diversity.

Of course, the golden rule to problem solving is to avoid going it alone. In that context, our alliances – of which Australia has many - create dramatic strength in numbers.

The Five Eyes alliance, in particular, is unparalleled. If you want to measure just how valuable these alliances are, you only need to consider how much our adversaries resent them.

Closed societies engineer their own trust deficit, treating others as transactional, rather than as genuine partners. 'Wolf warriors' misjudge the intelligence of citizens around the globe. In that regard, I’m reminded of a quote from Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, who said: “No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game you’ll always lose to a team.” Friends, I started this speech with a true story, about the work of ASIS officers in Afghanistan as Kabul fell. I have also shared with you some of the core work we conduct on a daily basis – namely extracting secrets that the Australian Government needs to know.

Now, to close this speech I’d like to share one last glimpse of what I have seen ASIS do during my time as Director-General.

I have seen ASIS officers support other Australian government agencies in their efforts to secure the release of Australian hostages… I have seen ASIS officers provide unwavering support to the defence mission in various conflict zones around the world. There, they worked tirelessly to obtain intelligence to protect the lives of civilians and military personnel.

I have seen ASIS officers help disrupt terrorist attacks that saved the lives of civilians, including Australians, putting themselves in harm’s way to do so… I have seen our officers obtain exquisite intelligence that gives government insight on the most pressing national security issues and saves government considerable expenditure… I have seen our officers disrupt unsafe maritime ventures, saving the lives of men, women and children who were risking their lives at sea… I have seen ASIS officers obtain access in the most denied of locations, behind the lines at night if you will. And I have seen ASIS officers staring down the hardest of targets without blinking...

All of these experiences, of which I am privileged to share in, form a part of the story of where the Service is today. And I am truly proud of the work we have done.

But as always, there is more to be done, and ASIS now must adopt considered and comprehensive transformation. Foreign intelligence services need to modernize – and ASIS is no exception. If they fall behind adversaries, they will, at worst, generate rather than mitigate national risk.

Transformation will ensure ASIS remains fit-for-purpose, and will be best able to support Government and Australia’s interests. It is vital we remain sharp, integrated and able to generate significant advantage and impact amidst increasing uncertainty.

Recognising that we are a sharp tool, not a broad brush, ASIS must be selective and discerning in its objectives to continue making a unique contribution to government.

Through effective prioritisation we must ultimately end up doing select priority tasks exceptionally well.

Friends, the challenge is great, the risk is real, the threat is growing. I start some days in my job apprehensive about what the future has in store for ASIS, but I finish every day more invigorated than apprehensive.

I am surrounded each and every day by the exceptional officers of Australia’s Secret Intelligence Service. Our people operate where others do not, will not or cannot; they achieve what others think to be impossible. My officers are professional, capable and accountable individuals who typify resilience, tenacity, and above all else - service. Every day I am reminded that Australia’s current and future ‘quiet achievers’ – are up for and will be up for – the tasks that await us now and into the future.


Event Audio

Listen to the event audio at Apple Podcasts - Google Podcasts - Spotify

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions