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Report of the Inquiry into  Australian Intelligence Agencies  

Chapter 7 - Resourcing and effectiveness of the agencies

[Table of Contents]


Australian Secret Intelligence Service

ASIS Today
Producing Secret Intelligence
Management Issues


The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) was established in 1952 as a collector of secret foreign intelligence, primarily in the Asia-Pacific region. The organisation grew out of, and was modeled on, its British counterpart, the UK Secret Intelligence Service (UKSIS). The organisation was first referred to in parliament in 1975 and was not publicly avowed until 1977.

ASIS underwent a series of shocks in the 1980s and early 1990s. The ill-conceived training exercise which resulted in the use of force in the Melbourne Sheraton Hotel, and the public disclosures by disaffected members of ASIS in 1994 were exceedingly low points. These incidents resulted in detailed inquiries into the organisation, which led to substantial reform.

The Intelligence Services Act 2001 provided a legislative footing for ASIS for the first time, placing on the public record the functions of the organisation, and its limits. Under that legislation, the organisation's fundamental role is to produce foreign secret intelligence, but the Act allows for additional tasks to be added to ASIS's mandate.

ASIS works closely with a wide group of intelligence partners. It has particularly close links with comparable services in the UK and the US, and has a wide range of ties with intelligence services of other countries, many of them in the Asian region.

ASIS Today

ASIS is going through perhaps the most substantial transition in its history. In line with the changing security environment, ASIS's responsibilities are now more diverse. While important traditional requirements remain, ASIS also has a growing role in gathering intelligence on non-state actors, including terrorist networks and illegal immigration syndicates.

In line with the additional requirements laid on it, ASIS is growing. Since 2000, the funding available to ASIS has doubled. In the 2004-05 financial year, ASIS will have a budget of more than $100 million. An extra $20 million has been allocated since September 11 for counter-terrorism alone.

The accountability environment in which ASIS works has also changed. The Intelligence Services Act, only three years in force, has become a mainstream part of the way the organisation operates.

Overall, it is change that characterises ASIS today more than any other dynamic. Managing that change successfully is the key to the success of the organisation in the foreseeable future.

Producing Secret Intelligence

The Inquiry found that, overall, ASIS's performance in undertaking its core business of producing secret intelligence was very good.

ASIS is focused on its mission, and levels of reporting are rising. However, quality is more important than quantity in intelligence collection, and the quality of ASIS's reporting is mixed. Though some customers were complimentary about the value of ASIS's reporting, others indicated that there were areas where ASIS's coverage was not as good as it should be.

ASIS has clearly achieved success against some of its highest priority intelligence requirements. That success, however, throws into relief other priorities, of similar significance to Australia, on which ASIS does not produce the same quality of reporting.

In the classified version of this report, the Inquiry makes specific recommendations that would more clearly identify areas where ASIS's performance should be improved, and measures that should be taken to achieve that. The Inquiry also indicates, in the classified version of the report, ways in which ASIS should be structured to maximise its output of high-quality secret intelligence.

ASIS is still building its capabilities on the high-priority intelligence requirements which have emerged in recent years. It takes time to develop capabilities in human intelligence, and a conclusive judgment about ASIS's success against its new requirements would be premature at this point. ASIS needs to manage its development of capability against new targets carefully and effectively, to a timeframe determined by the humint business. However, high-quality performance against terrorism requirements can and should be expected from ASIS in the foreseeable future.

The Inquiry recognised that, in producing human intelligence, a compromise needs to be struck between maximising the production of secret intelligence reporting against requirements and the management of risk. The Inquiry underlined the need for ASIS not to abandon that prudent risk management framework in its effort on new requirements.

ASIS activities are closely matched to government-approved priorities, and the Inquiry noted the considerable effort made by ASIS to tailor its output to the requirements set for it.

ASIS is focused on its customer base. It solicits feedback on its reports through a variety of methods. It has made genuine efforts to engage with customers to ensure that their needs are being met. Despite this, some customers in policy departments indicated that ASIS reporting provided only limited assistance to them in their day-to-day work.

The Inquiry examined the success that ASIS has had in adapting to its new intelligence priorities, and the impact of that adaptation on its work on traditional priorities. While it is not possible, at this point, to form a comprehensive conclusion about the success of ASIS's adaptation to new tasks, success has been achieved in some areas; in others a high degree of adaptation is being attempted. The high level of resources devoted to terrorism is notable, as is the output, at least in terms of quantity. Innovative approaches to new requirements are being developed. And in recruitment, ASIS is diversifying the skill sets required of its officers to fit the new requirements.

The Inquiry noted that ASIS had maintained its coverage of traditional intelligence requirements notwithstanding the major new effort it is directing to terrorism and to other new topics.

Management Issues

Overall, the Inquiry found that ASIS is well managed. In its historical context, that is a notable finding - prior to the inquiry by Justice Samuels and Mr Codd in 1995, the organisation had a poor record in management of its staff and resources.

Today, ASIS's managers are confidently carrying out its mandate. Their approach is contemporary and professional. While there are occasional lapses, they seem rare, and ASIS's management mostly compares well with modern Australian Public Service norms.

On the whole, staff are satisfied with their employment. The most recent staff survey showed that 73 per cent are satisfied with ASIS, and 70 per cent believe that ASIS is meeting its current challenges well, a finding that is consistent with the Inquiry's discussions with ASIS staff. Staff were, with marginal exceptions, complimentary of management and supported the direction that the organisation is taking.

In general, commitment is a feature of ASIS staff. They are, broadly, keenly engaged in their work, and prepared to work beyond normal requirements to ensure that their tasks are performed to a high standard. A number of staff volunteered the observation that the sense of camaraderie in ASIS is high. Having said that, some sections of the ASIS workforce feel that they are not favoured for advancement. The Inquiry found that there was no systemic failing by management in this area, but notes that ASIS needs to ensure that all sections of its workforce are given opportunities to be competitive for senior positions.

With the substantial expansion of the organisation has come a need for considerable effort in recruitment. This effort gives rise to real risks and challenges. The Inquiry found that, overall, staff selection is being handled with appropriate caution, though there have been some notable recent exceptions where poor recruitment decisions are evident. ASIS management should ensure that recruitment decisions are undertaken prudently, and that they make utmost efforts to avoid the recruitment of staff who might prove to be poorly suited to the organisation in the future. If that comes at risk to the rapid expansion of the organisation, then it is the expansion that should suffer, not ASIS's standards.

Stress is an increasing feature of the ASIS workplace. Some staff, including those responsible for ensuring the mental health of personnel, detailed to the Inquiry the high level of stress experienced by a large group of the organisation's members. That is particularly so in high-priority areas, but is a feature of much of the organisation in general. ASIS's leadership should have the wellbeing of their staff as a key concern and should monitor closely the signs of stress, and act promptly to remedy them.

In summary, the key issue for ASIS is its ability to grow and diversify in a healthy and sustainable way. Poorly managed growth could give rise to the selection of the wrong staff or the wrong internal systems, with serious risks. Those involved in monitoring ASIS's performance also need to recognise the difficulties associated with substantial growth, and tailor their expectations of the organisation accordingly.

Overall, the Inquiry found that the resources available to ASIS are appropriate for its mandate. Some very substantial requirements have been placed on it - not least its new obligation to develop knowledge of the activities and networks of terrorists. The additional resources available to ASIS for that task are appropriate for the scale of the undertaking.

The Inquiry was also reassured about ASIS's continuing ability to sustain its level of reporting against traditional intelligence priorities. The fact that substantial resources continue to be available for key traditional intelligence priorities is important for Australia's national security and prosperity.

The Inquiry found ASIS's resource management practices sound, with an appropriate allocation of resources among priority tasks. The Department of Finance and Administration saw no problems with ASIS's spending pattern since the increase in its resources.

Overall, the accountability of ASIS to government is strong. It was clear in discussions with staff and management, and in documentation that the Inquiry analysed, that the organisation is very conscious of its role in government, its responsibilities to ministers and other accountability mechanisms, and that it is focused on delivering to customer needs.

ASIS has adapted well to working within the confines of the Intelligence Services Act. The Inquiry heard, however, from ASIS management and staff of the complications that the Act creates for some of their work. In the main, these concerns relate to an additional administrative burden that the Act, and a range of other legislation, places on ASIS. The Inquiry found that much of that burden is directly attributable to appropriate levels of control on the work of intelligence agencies. Overall, the Inquiry is not convinced that the additional administrative burden is out of proportion with the need for accountability.

The Inquiry looked closely at the question of the language skills of intelligence agencies, and the topic is covered generically later in this chapter. ASIS specifically sought funds to bolster the key language capabilities of its staff.

Language skills are a vital tool of trade for gathering humint. ASIS's skill base in this area is satisfactory, but not optimal. It has a strong cadre in some areas, but deficiencies in others. The Inquiry recommended that ASIS should be provided with additional funding to bolster the key language capabilities of its staff.


ASIS should be provided with additional funding to bolster the key language capabilities of its staff.


Overall, the Inquiry found that ASIS's performance against its key objectives is very good. It has committed staff and an able management team. Its production of secret intelligence is strong in some areas, though improvements in quality are required in others. While there have been some early achievements, it is too soon to make a comprehensive judgment about ASIS's success on new requirements, including terrorism.

ASIS has a challenging period ahead. It must complete a major expansion, which entails some real risks. It is required to produce high-quality intelligence on new and complex subjects, notably terrorism. In doing this, it must balance carefully the demands for new intelligence production against the maintenance of a prudent risk management framework.


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