The master spy

Hamish McDonald
3 March 2003

As Australia's new head of ASIS takes up his job, Hamish McDonald gets a glimpse of the murky world of international espionage.

IN A world more fixated on intelligence-gathering satellites, remote sensors, electronic money trails and computerised decryption techniques, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) remains in the traditionally gritty business of spying using field agents and their networks of informants who are motivated by idealism, grudges, greed or blackmail.

It's called human intelligence these days, and it's coming back into favour as Western governments grapple with the amorphous enemy that is religious fanaticism. Leaving comparatively few trails susceptible to technical interception, the enemy demands an investment in arcane knowledge, language skills and deep deception to be penetrated and blocked.

Stepping up to take charge of Australia's efforts in this murky world is David Irvine, 55, known for his cricketing skills in his younger days and his adroit diplomatic work with Foreign Affairs, most recently as ambassador to China. Today he takes over as director-general of ASIS.

Although the secret service operates as a subsidiary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, reporting to the foreign minister and occupying the fifth floor of the department's Canberra headquarters, it is a new field for Irvine.

Having spearheaded the Government side of the successful campaign to clinch a $25 billion long-term liquified natural gas contract with China last year, Irvine is understandably enthused that this is only the beginning of wide and mutually beneficial contact. But now he is out of that, and into a job focused on terrorists plotting the slaughter of innocents and rogue regimes trying to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, as well as the usual Byzantine politics of Jakarta and other Asian capitals.

At first meeting, Irvine might appear too straight a character to enjoy that kind of thing, or be good at it. Usually dressed in a double-breasted pinstripe suit these days, his honours degree at the University of Western Australia was in Elizabethan history and he joined the department in the days when a formal cocktail party was the final test of suitability.

In on-the-record encounters it is hard to get a comment that is controversial or less than optimistic. Picture actor Derek Nimmo playing Carruthers of the FO, make it more vernacular, and you get the picture. In direct and private conservation, however, Irvine is shrewd and impishly humoured. Above all, say long-time colleagues, he is practical, and keenly aware of the importance of personal contact in pursuing policy objectives.

Having been high commissioner in Port Moresby during the Sandline mercenary affair, and having had two postings in Jakarta - one during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor - he has had experience of crisis. A workable speaker of Indonesian, Chinese, French and Italian, he also has more cross-cultural insight than most.

The organisation Irvine takes over is estimated by Australian National University intelligence specialist Desmond Ball to have about 200 staff, with 72 in the field at any time, at 18 Australian diplomatic missions. In most stations there is one ASIS officer "declared" to the host country who carries out liaison work and information exchanges, and another who is not declared and who tries to find out information "not readily available by other means", as the ASIS website discreetly puts it.

The ASIS stations in Bangkok, Jakarta and Tokyo are thought to have three officers each. The undeclared officer tends to be the second secretary who shows a surprisingly detailed knowledge of subjects like the Thai heroin trade or the involvement of Indonesia's first family in the oil tanker business.

Started in 1952, ASIS was modelled on the British foreign intelligence agency, known as MI6 or the Secret Intelligence Service. ASIS recruits were trained by MI6 to handle dangerous Cold War missions in the classic John Le Carre-style milieu. However, the agency's historic heyday was in a hotter place, Jakarta in the 1960s, when ASIS officers tracked the Indonesian communists and military cliques.

Since its existence was publicised in the early 1970s and formally acknowledged by Canberra in 1977, it has faced several challenges from sceptical governments which wondered whether the result was worth the risk of periodic botches (like the 1983 training exercise at a Melbourne hotel in which gun-wielding ASIS trainees axed down doors and terrorised staff and guests).

Under the outgoing ASIS director-general, Allan Taylor, the service was stripped of covert paramilitary activity, which is now with the army special forces and counter-terrorist units. According to legislation passed by Parliament in October 2001, ASIS is "prohibited by law from planning for, or undertaking, paramilitary activities involving violence against the person or the use of weapons", the ASIS website explains.

There is speculation that ASIS has become too bureaucratic, too reliant on its declared linkages with foreign counterparts. But sources familiar with the products of Australia's intelligence collection agencies and foreign partners say ASIS has done much better in recent years in South-East Asia than the US Central Intelligence Agency and, with MI6 largely out of the region, has established its supremacy there. It has also managed at least one recent coup in uncovering a covert operation in weapons of mass destruction by a "rogue state".

The importance of ASIS has been enhanced, these sources say, by the decline of conventional political reporting by Australia's regular diplomats, due to a "managerial ethos" that has gripped the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, whereby performance and consequent pay bonuses are rated by measurable outcomes.

Supporters of ASIS also argue that unlike Canada, which has no external intelligence agency as such, Australia is in a region of very different national societies and needs to keep unconventional channels of information open. In many South-East Asian countries, even the better-run ones like Malaysia and Singapore, the intelligence agencies play a vastly more important role in national politics than they do in the West.

While ASIS no longer has a licence to kill - if it ever had one - or even to play with firearms, it has to work alongside the CIA, which, since September 11, 2001, has been authorised to carry out assassinations and has charge of remote-controlled Predator drones, zapping ground targets with Hellfire missiles.

Irvine has been around long enough to recall the unfortunate ASIS involvement in CIA operations, such as the removal of Chile's Salvador Allende, the overthrow of Cambodia's Prince Sihanouk, and the slaughter of Indonesia's communists.

"There would have been sighs of relief at his appointment," says one close observer. "He is very close to what everyone was looking for."


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