ASIS gets a finger on the trigger

Deborah Snow
November 15, 2004

Australia's most secret intelligence agents can now carry guns - and may move towards more aggressive counter-terrorist operations. Deborah Snow reports.

When the head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, David Irvine, travelled recently to Jakarta after the bombing of Australia's embassy, no one from the Federal Government would confirm his presence there. "We don't ever reveal the whereabouts of the head of ASIS," a spokeswoman from the Foreign Affairs Department said.

The overseas spy service has always been the most secretive member of the Australian intelligence establishment. Its existence wasn't officially acknowledged until 1977, and it was placed on a legislative footing only in 2001.

The secrecy is partly cultural and partly because of what ASIS does: planting agents overseas to gather "human intelligence"- or "humint", as it is called in the trade - using methods which aren't always legal.

Now it appears ASIS has more than intelligence-gathering in its brief.

Ian Carnell, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, has confirmed that ASIS has been told to disrupt the activities of people smugglers in our region.

In an interview with the Herald, Carnell described this as a "major change" for ASIS, representing an addition to its role of "collection of information". Carnell said he had been devoting "two days each month to going over and looking through [ASIS's] operational files, and on the last three visits we've focused on people-smuggling disruption. When we've done that, I'll turn to those other areas of activity, which are more risky, and I want to have a good look at them."

A former ASIS agent, who by law can't be named, told the Herald he feared the disruption activities were part of a slide by ASIS away from a pure intelligence function back to "special operations", which were banned after Justice Hope's inquiry into the intelligence services in 1984.

The Hope inquiry followed a bungled training exercise at the Sheraton Hotel in Melbourne in 1983, during which ASIS recruits bailed up hotel management with machine guns. In the resulting uproar, ASIS was ordered to stop paramilitary activities and to drop the use of firearms.

But the fight against the new generation of terrorists is leading it into murkier waters. One sign of this was the restoration this year of the rights of ASIS members to carry guns for protection on missions overseas.

The Government says this is not a return to the organisation's darker days, and that the measure is for self-defence only. But it concedes the move will allow ASIS to work more closely with other agencies which are allowed to use violence (read here American agencies). Such developments have generated unease even within parts of the intelligence community. ASIS's return to the use of fireams is "bullshit" according to one senior insider. "It will distract them."

Statements from sections of the US intelligence apparatus which outline a policy of assassinating terror suspects also raise questions about where ASIS will draw the line in the kinds of operations it might assist.

Take evidence from April this year to the US Senate Armed Forces Committee by Brigadier-General Donald Wurster, head of intelligence in the US Special Operations Command.

Wurster argued that the global war on terrorism required as a "highest priority ... the capability to find a specific person who presents a threat to our country, our values and our way of life ... to locate and track this High Value Target ... from the point of discovery through decisive action to capture or kill the individual". Wurster said his group would work with unspecified "partners in the intelligence community to adjust intelligence requirements and methods to [this] new paradigm".

The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has said the Government " does not support targeted assassinations". Yet there seem to be grey areas in the law governing ASIS. The organisation is banned from engaging in paramilitary activities or "violence against the person", but a footnote adds that "This ... does not prevent ASIS from being involved with the planning or undertaking of [violent] activities ... by other organisations ... provided that staff members or agents of ASIS do not undertake those activities."

Significantly, Carnell has flagged he'll be keeping a vigilant eye on how ASIS uses its new gun-carrying powers. He told the Herald he's convinced that "there are a couple of sorts of operations, not in any way offensive operations, where our people would be silly to go into them without some form of self-protection."

And Australia's foremost intelligence academic, Professor Des Ball, argues that ASIS men and women in the field can face lethal danger. He cites the case of two agents in Cairo who were badly beaten when their cover was blown.

While the Government is unlikely to lift the lid on the change in ASIS's direction, it's clear that of all the agencies it has the hardest and most dangerous work ahead of it. Philip Flood gave a rare glimpse of "the high level of stress experienced by a large group of the organisation's members".

Meanwhile ASIS will be shaken by renewed claims yesterday on Channel Nine's Sunday program of past penetration of ASIS by Indonesian intelligence - claims never tested by a public inquiry.


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