Senator James Paterson – recognising the 75the anniversary of ASIO, and referencing the Hamas attacks and the “horrors of violent extremism”

photo of Senator James Paterson
March 26, 2024

The terrorist attacks in Israel perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October serve as another reminder of the horrors of violent extremism. These events remind us that we cannot take our social cohesion for granted. I thank ASIO for the important role it plays in monitoring these developments and their implications for domestic security.

Senator PATERSON (Victoria) (19:59): I rise today to recognise the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ASIO, marked this month, and to honour the incredible men and women who have quietly worked to keep Australia safe without fanfare or public recognition. Today, ASIO is widely recognised for the indispensable role it has in protecting Australia from threats such as terrorism, espionage and foreign interference—so much so that it’s hard to envisage a security apparatus without ASIO as one of its central pillars.

But this was indeed the case 75 years ago. Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, the high-profile defection of a Soviet spy, Igor Gouzenko, revealed the workings of a Soviet spy ring in Canada. Media coverage of his evidence ignited public debate in Australia about our security against the threat of Communist subversion and led to criticism of the government’s approach to national security. The reality was that ASIO’s immediate precursor, the Commonwealth Investigation Service, was grossly underprepared for the threat of Soviet espionage. Historian Jacqueline Templeton described how the CIS was:

… incompetent … because it had very little backing from the Government. The service was financially starved, with virtually no money to run agents or mount operations, no money for training personnel or for attracting skilled and properly qualified persons.

In fact, the CIS did not even automatically vet its employees who were undertaking secret duties, somewhat ironic given ASIO’s new responsibilities for top-secret vetting across the Commonwealth provided by legislative amendments last year. This meant that the CIS was fundamentally ill equipped to detect and disrupt Soviet espionage in Australia—a fact not helped by the general naivety in the Australian government at the time, driven by a perception that Australia was relatively untouched by these far-off threats.

While the Australian government may have been relaxed about these threats, our allies were not. As David Horner writes in the first volume of the Official History of ASIO:

Signals intelligence was at the heart of American and British concerns about security in Australia in 1948, and led directly to the establishment of ASIO in March, 1949. These concerns focused on two areas. First, information from decrypted Soviet cables [codenamed Venona] revealed unequivocally that Australian citizens in key government departments such as External Affairs were spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. Second, as a result of this spying Britain and the US cut off Australia from access to Allied Sigint, thus damaging Australia’s standing as a reliable defence partner.

It is hard to understate the significance of these revelations. Through the closely guarded secret of the Venona project, the Americans and British worked closely to intercept, decrypt and translate cables between Moscow and 27 cities around the world, including Canberra. The analysts read more than 200 cables revealing the names or cover names of about a dozen Australians, demonstrating that Australia had been thoroughly penetrated by Soviet intelligence.

Our allies were understandably unimpressed and began to withhold sensitive intelligence from Australia. In August 1948, the US would decide to withhold all classified information from Australia. Facing pressure in the wake of the Venona revelations about the Australian government’s maturity when it came to matters of national security, Prime Minister Chifley made the decision to form a new security service on 20 September 1948. The following year, Chifley informed parliament that ‘a great increase in Australian security tasks and responsibilities has made it necessary to re-establish a separate security service’ and that Mr Justice Reed had been appointed to ‘establish and organise an Australian security service’. Prime Minister Chifley issued a directive on 16 March 1949 to formally appoint Reed as the first director-general of security, and thus ASIO was born.

But this was only the first step in what would be a lengthy and concerted effort to win back the trust of the US and British security agencies. ASIO’s first job was to catch the spies which had prompted its own creation. That set it on a path that would ultimately lead to ASIO convincing Vladimir Petrov to seek asylum in Australia, who famously and dramatically defected with his wife, Evdokia, in 1954. The image of Mrs Petrov being walked towards the tarmac at Sydney airport by armed Soviet minders to return to the USSR remains one of the most iconic photos in Australia’s history. If the Venona revelations were the nadir of Australia’s security agencies in the Cold War, the Petrov Affair was undoubtedly the peak. As Horner writes:

The defection of the Petrovs was a considerable triumph. Just on five years after its formation, ASIO had managed to achieve the defection of the most senior MVD officer since before the Second World War … the Petrovs brought much valuable information and established ASIO’s reputation among allied security services.

Seventy years later, our closest allies are still comfortable sharing today with us their most sensitive secrets, as evidenced most recently by the AUKUS agreement.

The Petrov Affair and the subsequent royal commission into espionage would for the first time shine a light on ASIO and its operations and see the organisation recognised for its important contribution to Australian security. The royal commission would also serve as a conduit for a series of important reforms which would further bolster ASIO’s capabilities and strengthen its legislative foundations.

At the behest of the second director-general of security, Charles Spry, Prime Minister Menzies introduced the ASIO bill into parliament on 24 October 1956, which, for the first time, publicly articulated the functions of ASIO and provided it with statutory authority and protection. Menzies would further shore up ASIO’s statutory powers by creating offences to cover treason, treachery and sabotage, and enabling ASIO to legally intercept communications through things like wire taps. These reforms were then accompanied by an increase to ASIO’s budget and staffing.

Twenty years later, the first Hope royal commission would have far more significant ramifications for ASIO. Justice Hope had been commissioned by Prime Minister Whitlam to inquire into Australia’s national security agencies, including their history, administration and functions. The Hope royal commission, while critical of ASIO in some respects, ultimately provided the impetus for the government to significantly increase its investment in ASIO’s capabilities and to ensure that the ASIO Act provided clear legal cover for its mandated activities. This led to reforms legislated in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 and the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, which provided ASIO with a clearer operating framework that is foundational to the work they do today.

The second Hope royal commission, in 1983, also led to enduring, if less dramatic, reforms of ASIO. Arguably the most significant change was the establishment of an independent office, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, created in part to scrutinise the work of ASIO and other intelligence agencies and ensure their work is lawful. While these reforms were largely driven by ASIO’s efforts as they related to countersubversion, counterintelligence and counterespionage, ASIO had to adjust to new operational priorities as the threat of terrorism made its way onto Australian shores.

While Australia had borne witness to politically motived violence before, when a bomb exploded in a garbage bin outside Sydney’s Hilton hotel in February 1978, the threat of terrorism was brought home to Australians and placed counterterrorism squarely in ASIO’s mandate. This mandate would become much more acute in the early 2000s. No Australian who was alive at the time will ever forget the visceral horror of the September 11 attacks or the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. The former director-general of security, Dennis Richardson, recalls: ‘9/11 led to counterterrorism moving from the periphery of government policy to the centre. Bali brought home the relevance of all of that to Australian security and the security of Australians.’ This led to a new wave of challenges for ASIO, as the rise of the ISIL caliphate saw Australians travel overseas to fight for terrorist groups who were perpetrating truly abhorrent violence on innocent people around the world.

Australia’s current national tourism threat level is ‘possible’. It was lowered from ‘probable’ in November last year. At that time, ASIO director-general Mike Burgess reported that there had been 11 terrorist attacks on Australian soil and 21 significant plots detected and disrupted since 2014. But the director-general has been quick to remind us that ‘possible’ does not mean ‘negligible’, as ASIO continues to investigate individuals who might seek to engage in terrorism in Australia. The terrorist attacks in Israel perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October serve as another reminder of the horrors of violent extremism. These events remind us that we cannot take our social cohesion for granted. I thank ASIO for the important role it plays in monitoring these developments and their implications for domestic security.

Seventy-five years since its creation, combating foreign interference and espionage remains ASIO’s principal focus. Just last month in his annual threat assessment director-general Mike Burgess said:

While the terrorism threat level is POSSIBLE, if we had a threat level for espionage and foreign interference it would be at CERTAIN—the highest level on the scale.

Many of us were shocked by the revelations in the same speech that an elected politician was prepared to betray our country. But it should not come as a surprise. The director-general has been saying for years now that foreign interference and espionage has supplanted terrorism as Australia’s principal security threat. I welcome his disclosure, because it has shaken Australian out of its complacency, similar to what the Petrov affair did 75 years ago.

The current strategic environment is unprecedented and the threat landscape continues to evolve. But Australians can take comfort in knowing that ASIO will rise to the challenge, remaining vigilant and shielding our country from those who seek to do us harm. On ASIO’s 75th anniversary, it is fitting that we recognise the continued sacrifices that the hardworking men and women of ASIO continue to make in service of the safety of their fellow Australians. Thank you for your tireless and often unacknowledged efforts, and for the sacrifices you make in your personal lives due to the classified nature of your work. While public praise for your action might be rare, I’m pleased to offer mine. And, on behalf of my coalition colleagues, I extend our heartfelt gratitude. We thank you for your service on your 75th anniversary.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard