By Brian Toohey: Pearls and Irritations

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service was established in 1950 to conduct spying overseas and morally repulsive covert operations. It had a slow start, but in the 1970s it sent three staff to Chile to help the CIA overthrow the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende.

To its credit, ASIS opposed the deployment in which it took over the intelligence gathering work done by three CIA operators as part of the US effort to destabilise Allende. The foreign minister Billy McMahon over-ruled ASIS at the request of the Americans. Declassified US documents show the CIA supplied weapons and funds to anti-Allende operatives.

Allende died in the September 1975 coup and General Augusto Pinochet was installed. He ran a particularly vicious dictatorship including widespread killings and torture. Soon after the election in December 1972, the head of ASIS head Bill Robinson told the new prime minister Gough Whitlam that it saw no Australian interests served by ASIS operatives being in Chile and asked they be withdrawn. Whitlam agreed.

Although the US has declassified some documents, by the time of the 50th anniversary of the coup in Chile Australia had released almost nothing about what it did there.

Fruitless Reports Fruitless Inquiries

Early in his term Whitlam received a report from the Joint Intelligence Organisation concluding that ASIS should not have any covert action role. A report from two senior military officers made the same recommendation. Uncharacteristically, Whitlam did not implement these reports.

Instead, he foolishly appointed a New South Wales supreme court judge Bob Hope to conduct an inquiry into Australia’s intelligence services. Despite having no background in these areas, Hope said, “Espionage is illegal. The clandestine service’s job is to break those laws without being caught”.

He never explained why breaking the law was a good thing, particularly as he wanted ASIS to be more “risk-taking”. 0ne immediate consequence was a newly appointed outsider as head John Ryan established a Directorate of Covert Action, which attracted some thrill seeking part-time members who were certainly risk taking.

Risk Taking

In a “training” exercise, ASIS trainees ran around the Sheraton hotel in Melbourne dressed in garish party masks and armed with hypodermic syringes, automatic pistols and silenced submachine guns illegally imported. No one had thought to tell the hotel management or the Victoria police. The trainees could have been shot when the police turned up. Those involved should’ve been charged. They weren’t because Labor’s Foreign Minister Bill Hayden refused to hand over the actual names of those involved rather than their fake names.

There was no excuse that the trainees be posted overseas as intelligence officers handling informants – they would remain in Australia until a real life operation needed their dubious services. Once again, the mystique surrounding intelligence excused criminal behaviour that should have been prosecuted.

Although Hope had recommended ASIS take more risks, he was appointed to enquire into the Sheraton raid and condemned it.

Intelligence Disasters

Hope recommended ASIS adopt an ‘attack’ role to penetrate overseas intelligence services. He listed the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese and North Korean intelligence services as suitable for penetration, plus others in Southeast Asia. For this purpose, he recommended posting ASIS operatives to Pyongyang – this was reckless stuff that, if implemented, would almost certainly have gotten the operatives and their agents jailed.

When ASIS tried to infiltrate the KGB in Bangkok in 1984, the operation backfired badly. The Soviet embassy held a press conference revealing the name of the ASIS officer and what he had done. One experienced ASIS official later commented on a non-attributable basis, ‘Why divert resources into a game the Soviets know backwards, when your real job is to find out what is happening in Thailand.’

Worse, the then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer’s decision to order ASIS to bug the government offices in Dili in 2004 was a moral disgrace and intelligence disaster.

The ASIS officers, pretending to be Australian aid workers, entered Timor-Leste on false passports. ASIS eavesdropped on the discussions about negotiations with Australia over petroleum leases and royalties in the Timor Sea. This let Australia win a resources boundary well beyond the median line between it and its impoverished neighbour. The rewards included a billion dollars worth of helium as a by-product.

The bugging was supported by the Howard government’s decision to withdraw from the binding application of the Law of the Sea’s territorial dispute settlement procedures two months before Timor-Leste gained independence in 2002. (This cynical move didn’t stop the Turnbull government warning China to obey the Law of the Sea in its territorial disputes in the South China Sea.) All went smoothly until Timor Leste discovered the bugging and took successful action in the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2013 on the grounds that Australia gained an improper negotiating advantage from eavesdropping.


I asked Mark Dreyfus, Labor’s attorney general before the change of government in 2013, if he authorised warrants to intercept the phones of the ASIS whistleblower who was in charge of the bugging and his lawyer Bernard Collaery who acted for Timor-Leste. Dreyfus replied that he “never comments on intelligence matters”. But he should’ve been much more careful about what activities he was endorsing.

The new coalition attorney general, George Brandis was not so shy. He acknowledges he signed the warrant for ASIO to raid Collaery’s Canberra office in December 2013. ASIO’s head at the time David Irvine was the same person who headed ASIS during the 2004 bugging in Dili.

During the raid, officials seized documents, including an affidavit from the ASIS whistleblower (later called Witness K).

ASIO also took Witness K’s passport, thus preventing him giving oral evidence in The Hague that Collaery had foreshadowed in the normal exchange of information in commercial litigation.

Zero Interest in the Truth

There is no precedent for ASIO’s seizure of the plaintiff’s documents in a commercial case with the government as the defendant. The operation had nothing to do with national security and everything to do with helping Woodside Petroleum make a lot more money by gaining access to more natural gas than an equitable arrangement would have provided.

Collaery said Witness K came forward after learning that Downer had become an advisor to Woodside. Witness K’s affidavit reportedly said he considered the bugging was immoral because it was in the interests of a petroleum company not the nation. After setbacks in The Hague, Australia agreed in March 2018 to give Timor-Leste a more equitable revenue share from gas fields.

A former intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie then revealed in Parliament on 28 June 2018 that the government had approved the prosecution of Witness K and Collaery for allegedly breaching the Intelligence Services Act by revealing the information they obtained from ASIS. This was information revealing a serious crime that should’ve been exposed. Collaery told a press conference later that day that Witness K had received approval from the Inspector General of Intelligence to approach him for legal advice about the bugging.

The episode exposed governmental hypocrisy. The government has enacted laws savagely penalising anyone involved in foreign interference in Australia, yet defends its own grubby act of foreign interference in Timor Leste.

The annual average growth in funding for ASIS in recent years has been over 10 percent. The average for all other government spending has been under 3.5%. ASIS received a whopping $605 million in the 2022-23 budget with more spending to come.

There is a good case for abolishing ASIS because it is illegal. No one has given a satisfactory explanation for why it should be allowed to break the law, then cover it up by laws that make it a crime to expose the illegality. The Government should ask outside specialists to examine its reporting to assess value. A former head of the then Australian Aid Agency Peter McCawley told me he asked ASIS to stop delivering its daily information in a locked satchel because it was useless. The next day a deputy ASIS head turned up to ask him not to cancel the delivery because it needed to keep up its circulation numbers.

Internecine Deceit

Former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans said that in his 13 years in cabinet “very little of the stuff off any that was… gleaned, [by ASIO or ASIS] added much value to our understanding of what was going on, let alone vital to our security interests”. Alan Wrigley, a former head of strategic policy in the defence department, later told a conference that none of the massive volume of intelligence material that had crossed this desk over a 10 year period “was of any value to policymakers”.

It’s hard to believe that the $605 million spent on ASIS would not be better allocated to locating more journalists in the Asia-Pacific as well more university researchers, plus more visits by school children. In some cases, ASIS officials with a good record of accurate reporting could switch to academia or the media.

Information gathered in secret is not nearly as important as open source material in understanding what is happening. After retiring, a former deputy head of the CIA Herbert Scoville said that 95% of the information used by the CIA came from open source material rather than human spies. He acknowledged the important contribution made by satellite surveillance, but ASIS makes no contribution there.

Brian Toohey is one of Australia’s most distinguished journalists. He is author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.