Significant Events in ASIO's History
The following is a synopsis of the major events which led to ASIO's
establishment in 1949 and significant events since. It is not a
chronology of espionage or terrorist events in Australia, nor is
it a history of ASIO, although significant publicly known ASIO operations
The information is based on publicly available material such as
ASIO's Annual Reports, reports of Royal Commissions, reports
by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO and the Inspector-General
of Intelligence and Security, all of which should be accessible
through public libraries.
As ASIO is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act 1982,
it is not possible to obtain current information regarding ASIO's
operations. However, information which is more than thirty years
old may be accessed using the access and exemption provisions of
the Archives Act 1983.
had several security organisations between 1915 and 1949 beginning
with the formation of a branch of the British 'Central Counter-Espionage
Bureau' as part of an Empire-wide apparatus. Some organisations
were civilian and some were military or with significant military
In 1945 a cipher clerk, Igor Gouzenko, defected from the Soviet
Embassy in Canada and provided evidence of Soviet plans to use local
communists and sympathisers to obtain defence and military information
- especially material relating to atomic research and techniques
for production of atomic weaponry.
In the late 1940s the formation of the Soviet Bloc under the
Warsaw Pact generated widespread public fear of a third World War
and the era of Cold War confrontation began.
Against this background a US/UK code breaking operation, called
Venona, targeting encrypted Soviet diplomatic communications operated
in great secrecy. Operation Venona had started in the US in February
1943. Venona information showed sensitive Australian government
information was being passed to the Soviet Union from a source in
Australia. Venona identified a 'spy ring' operating in
Australia being run from the Soviet Embassy.
In the years before 1949, officers of the United Kingdom's
Security Service made several trips to Australia to inform the government
of the security leaks and to report back to the UK on the security
situation in Australia.
16th March 1949 Prime Minister Ben Chifley issued a 'Directive
for the Establishment and Maintenance of a Security Service'
to Mr Justice Geoffrey Reed appointing him Director-General of Security
and directing him to establish a security service. The annual budget
for the new security service was £115,000.
The security service was established to investigate the leads being
provided by Operation Venona so as to identify the group of people
in Australia spying for the Soviet Union. Within the security service
this became known as 'the Case'. Officers from the United
Kingdom's Security Service worked with the new service and passed
on leads generated by Operation Venona.
The other responsibility of the security service was to vet people
for suitability for access to classified information i.e. to provide
In August 1949 Justice Reed advised the Prime Minister he had decided
to call the service the 'Australian Security Intelligence Organisation'.
the 1950s ASIO's major focus was 'the Case'.
Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia, both agents of the Soviet
Ministry of State Security at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, defected
in 1954. As a consequence the Soviet Embassy closed on 29th
April 1954 and did not re-open until 4th June 1959.
The first accredited diplomat, when the Embassy re-opened in 1959,
was First Secretary Ivan Fedorovich Skripov.
6th July 1950 Prime Minister Robert Menzies issued an expanded
and more specific Directive titled 'Charter
of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization'
(sic) on the appointment of Colonel Charles Spry as the new
Director-General of Security.
Headquarters moved from Sydney to Melbourne.
'the Case' was being investigated ASIO was also running
an operation against the Third Secretary of the Soviet Embassy, Vladimir
Mikhailovich Petrov, an officer of the Soviet Ministry of State Security
(MVD) - a forerunner to the KGB.
defected to Australia on 3rd April 1954 at the end of his
posting. He had been subject to several false accusations by the Soviet
Ambassador which could have led to imprisonment back in the Soviet
13th April Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced the
defection in Parliament and that a Royal Commission would be established
to inquire into espionage activities in Australia.
week later there were dramatic scenes at Mascot airport as two Soviet
couriers 'escorted' Petrov's wife Evdokia, also an
MVD officer, aboard an aircraft to return to Moscow. Later, while
the plane refuelled in Darwin, Mrs. Petrov also defected after speaking
to her husband by telephone.
Royal Commission on Espionage was established on 3rd May
1954 and finished in August 1955. Both Petrovs gave evidence.
The Royal Commission reported that "... it plainly appears
that for many years the Government of the U.S.S.R. had been using
its Embassy at Canberra as a cloak under which to control and operate
espionage organizations in Australia."
was put on a statutory footing, instead of the purely executive basis
on which it had stood since establishment. No change was made to ASIO's
functions. The ASIO Act 1956 came into effect on 13th December
main focus in the 1960s continued to be Soviet espionage and subversion.
Australia became involved in the Vietnam War in the early 1960s.
The second half of the decade was marked by large-scale anti-Vietnam
War demonstrations which continued through to the early 1970s.
In 1963 nine Australian members of the Croatian Revolutionary
Brotherhood carried out an incursion into Yugoslavia where they
were arrested, tried and imprisoned for various terms. A tenth person
was arrested in Germany.
Telephonic Communications (Interception) Act 1960 received
assent. The Act enabled ASIO to seek warrants from the Attorney-General
to intercept telephone communications, although the practice had existed
Also, because of deficiencies identified by the Royal Commission
on Espionage relating to espionage during peacetime, the Crimes
Act 1914 was amended to change the provisions relating to espionage
and breaches of official secrecy and to include sections covering
treason, treachery and sabotage.
First Secretary Ivan Skripov was declared persona non grata
because he had been engaged in elaborate preparations for espionage.
Since 1961 Skripov had been cultivating a woman who was actually an
agent for ASIO. After a series of training runs, Skripov tasked the
agent to deliver a package to a person in Adelaide. The package contained
a message sender which, when used with a transmitter, enabled coded
messages to be sent by radio at several hundred words per minute.
(Around that time, a similar device had been found in the home of
a UK couple convicted of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.)
The package also contained a coded list of Russian transmission timetables.
The agent's appointed contact in Adelaide did not show up for
the meeting and she was unable to deliver the package. Rather than
risk having the device used in Australia the government declared Skripov
persona non grata.
attacks that had begun in the late 1960s continued throughout the
1970s. Organisations opposed to the existence of Israel struck at
vulnerable international targets. The murder of 11 Israeli Olympic
team members at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games by the Black September
organisation and several plane hijackings were just some of the many
incidents which caught world attention. Ideologically motivated European
terrorist groups also became active conducting a series of bombings
In 1972, a bomb exploded at the Yugoslav General Trade and Tourist
Agency in Sydney. Sixteen people were injured, two critically.
Also in 1972 there was a second incursion by Australians of Croatian
background into Yugoslavia.
On 13th February 1978 a bomb exploded in a garbage
bin outside the Sydney Hilton Hotel where delegates to the Commonwealth
Heads of Government Regional Meeting were staying. Three people
were killed and six others severely injured.
15th and 16th March, Attorney-General Lionel
Murphy made highly publicised visits to ASIO's Canberra office
and Melbourne Headquarters (the 'Murphy raid') to examine
ASIO documents relating to Croatian extremist activities in Australia;
and to ask questions about arrangements for the protection of the
Yugoslav Prime Minister who was to visit Australia later that month.
21st August 1974 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced
the appointment of Mr Justice Robert Hope of the Supreme Court of
New South Wales as Royal Commissioner to inquire into Australia's
intelligence agencies. This was known as the Royal Commission
on Intelligence and Security (RCIS).
Hope completed RCIS. He confirmed the need for Australia's own
security intelligence agency. He made many recommendations on improving
ASIO's analytical capability, dissemination and communication
of information, information storage and retrieval, financial accountability,
Ministerial control, security assessments for access to classified
information and for immigration cases, and on cooperation with police
and foreign intelligence services. Significant recommendations were
- areas of ASIO investigation be expanded to include sabotage,
terrorism and what Justice Hope referred to as 'active
measures' by foreign agents interfering in Australia
- ASIO be given lawful authority to open mail, enter premises,
to use listening devices and intercept telegrams and telex under
- a Security Appeals Tribunal be established where people who
were subject to unfavourable security assessments could appeal
- ASIO produce a classified Annual Report for the Minister
- the Director-General should keep the Leader of the Opposition
regularly informed of security matters
- ASIO's Headquarters be relocated to Canberra.
In November ASIO advertised publicly for the first time for Intelligence
Officers. This flowed from one of the recommendations of RCIS. Before
this time potential Intelligence Officers were approached for recruitment.
It was at this point that ASIO first employed women as intelligence
the Hilton Hotel bombing the Government commissioned Justice Hope
to conduct a review of protective security arrangements for the Commonwealth
and on Commonwealth/State cooperation on protective security.
The Government decided ASIO's Headquarters should move from
Melbourne to Canberra.
Hope's Protective Security Review Report designated ASIO as the
agency responsible for producing national threat assessments in the
field of terrorism and politically motivated violence. Justice Hope
also recommended that relations between ASIO and State and Territory
police forces be regulated by arrangements made between governments.
A new ASIO Act was passed by parliament and put into effect many
of the RCIS recommendations.
December 1980 the Turkish Consul-General in Sydney, Sarik Ariyak and
his bodyguard, Engin Sever, were murdered by the Justice Commandos
of the Armenian Genocide.
In December 1982 the Israeli Consulate-General and the Hakoah
Club in Sydney were bombed.
A bomb exploded on 23rd November 1986 beneath the
Turkish Consulate-General in Melbourne killing one of the bombers.
Another person was later convicted for his part in the crime.
In its 1986-87 unclassified Annual Report, ASIO reported
it assessed that approximately fifty foreign officials in Australia
had an undeclared intelligence role or were otherwise engaged in
acts of foreign interference. Their activities included interference
in their respective émigré communities, intelligence activities
directed against diplomatic representatives of third countries,
and attempts to gain access to protected information and technology.
Act 1979 came into effect, having been passed by Parliament in 1979.
At the same time the Security Appeals Tribunal as recommended by Justice
Hope was established.
The ASIO Staff Association was formed to represent all staff in
matters affecting their terms and conditions of employment.
Church of Scientology brought a court action against the Director-General,
the Attorney-General and the Commonwealth seeking declarations that
it was not a threat to security; and the Director-General was acting
beyond his powers under the ASIO Act in gathering information about
the Church, communicating that information to other persons and characterising
it as a security risk. The action was unsuccessful.
In its decision, the Court considered the meaning of the term 'relevance
to security' used in the ASIO Act. The court found it was not
possible to suggest any rational test by which 'relevance to
security' could be defined. The court found that it may be
'relevant to security' to determine that a person is not
a risk to security just as it would be relevant to security if they
were a risk. The court also found that while initial intelligence
may establish that a person is not a security risk, it does not
preclude ASIO from collecting further intelligence about the person.
April 1983 Valeriy Ivanov, First Secretary at the Soviet Embassy in
Canberra was declared persona non grata on the grounds that
he had carried out duties incompatible with his diplomatic status.
ASIO had assessed he was an officer of the Soviet Committee for State
Following the considerable publicity surrounding Ivanov's
expulsion the Government established a Royal Commission, again under
Justice Hope, to review the activities of Australia's Security
and Intelligence Agencies (RCASIA).
In an unrelated development the Security Appeals Tribunal, when
reviewing an unfavourable ASIO security assessment of a person who
was a member of the Australian Communist Party, ruled that membership
of the Communist Party of Australia did not warrant a recommendation
against the grant of access to classified national security material.
A nexus between the applicant and particular activities of security
interest needed to be shown.
The Attorney-General tabled in parliament an unclassified version
of ASIO's Annual Report for the year ended 30th
June 1983. This was the first unclassified report produced by ASIO.
Archives Act 1983 was proclaimed. Within ASIO work began to
transfer relevant ASIO records to Australian Archives and facilitate
public access to these records within the provisions of the Archives
In December 1984 Justice Hope completed his report on RCASIA. The
major recommendations related to ASIO's functions and matters
of legality, propriety and accountability. The recommendations included
- the security related activities which ASIO should investigate
be redefined. References to subversion and terrorism be removed
and replaced with politically motivated violence, attacks on Australia's
defence system and promoting communal violence
- the matter which Justice Hope had called 'active measures'
by foreign agents in RCIS be replaced with a new item 'acts
of foreign interference'
- ASIO be given additional functions of collecting foreign intelligence
and providing protective security advice
- provision be made for the Minister to issue guidelines to the
Director-General on the performance of ASIO's functions,
- a separate office of Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security
Justice Hope also recommended that the ASIO Act expressly provide
that it is not the purpose of the Act that the right of lawful advocacy,
protest or dissent should be affected or that exercising those rights
should, by themselves, constitute activity prejudicial to security.
designated an officer as Media Liaison Officer. The Director-General
emphasised at the time that public comment would not be made on operational
activity but to provide better understanding of ASIO's functions,
limitations and responsibilities, and the standards of accountability,
legality and propriety it maintains.
The Director-General issued a specific denial of the allegation
that ASIO had a role in the bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney
ASIO Act 1979 was amended giving effect to recommendations made by
Justice Hope in RCASIA. The amended legislation also established the
Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO.
new Central Office in Canberra, replacing the Melbourne Headquarters,
commenced operation on 2nd December 1986
Central Office, Canberra
permanent site for testing protective security equipment was established
in the ACT.
1990s saw the break-up of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
The beginning of the decade saw the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq
and the Gulf War. Later came conflict in the Balkans.
Terrorist attacks became more lethal. There was an increase
in the number of terrorist attacks where individual incidents caused
heavy casualties. There was a shift in the organisational structure
of terrorist groups with small, loosely-connected groups acting
Civilian paramilitary anti-government groups became prominent,
often based around New World Order conspiracy theories.
On 6th April 1992 several Mujahideen e-Khalq supporters
vandalised the Iranian Embassy in Canberra and assaulted embassy
Preparations for the Sydney 2000 Olympic and Paralympic Games
In June 1995 the honorary French Consulate in Perth was set
on fire in protest against France's decision to resume nuclear testing
in the Pacific.
In February 1999 sixty-five pro-Kurdistan Workers Party protesters
occupied the Greek Consulate-General in Sydney protesting the arrest
of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. (Ocalan had been sheltering in
the residence of the Greek Ambassador to Kenya from where he was
expelled and taken to Turkey.)
Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security published his findings
on allegations that the (now abolished) Queensland Police Special
Branch had improperly transferred to ASIO a number of 'files'
which should have been destroyed. He found that ASIO had acted legally
and with propriety in its handling of information passed to it by
the Queensland Police. He also recommended that those records held
by ASIO which were not relevant to security should be destroyed.
ASIO devoted considerable resources in late 1990 to security investigations
during the build up to the Gulf War.
the beginning of the Gulf War in mid-January until March ASIO was
involved in intensive investigations related to the war.
National Action member, Perry Whitehouse, was sentenced to 13 years
imprisonment for the murder of fellow member Wayne Smith. ASIO listening
device tapes had recorded the murder and were produced in evidence
at the trial.
ASIO introduced cost recovery for protective security advice at
the end of 1991.
early 1992 the Government commissioned a review 'of the overall
impact of changes in international circumstances on the roles and
priorities of the Australian intelligence agencies'. A statement
made by Prime Minister Paul Keating on 21st July 1992 included
the following paragraphs:
Consistent with the philosophy of a separation of the assessment,
policy and foreign intelligence collection functions, the Government
considers that the existing roles of the individual agencies remain
valid in the 1990s. The rationale outlined by Mr Justice Hope for
ASIO as a freestanding, non-executive, advisory intelligence security
agency remains relevant in the 1990s and the Government has therefore
decided that ASIO should continue to have the roles and responsibilities
laid down in existing legislation.
The Soviet threat certainly formed an important component of ASIO's
activities, but threats from other sources of foreign interference
and politically motivated violence have been important to ASIO for
some time, and will remain so. However, the implications for ASIO
of the changes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are
more far-reaching than for the other agencies. The Government has
therefore decided that while ASIO's capacity to meet its responsibilities
must be maintained, there is scope for resource reductions.
The resource reductions for ASIO were a cut of 60 staff and a $3.81
million budget decrease, both to occur over a period not exceeding
In April the Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO released its
report on the effects of the access provisions of the Archives
Act 1983 on the operations of ASIO. The government accepted
the Committee's recommendations that:
- records that might identify a person as an ASIO source, agent
or operative are to be guaranteed exemption from disclosure for
a period of 30 years after the death of such a person (based on
a notional life span of 75 years),
- information received from a foreign service carry the same protection
from public access as it has in its country of origin, and
- the Security Appeals Tribunal which heard appeals against unfavourable
security assessments and appeals under the Archives Act relating
to ASIO records, should be replaced with a 'Security Division'
within the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Following the 6th April assault on the Iranian Embassy
in Canberra, the Government commissioned a review of the adequacy
and appropriateness of counter terrorism procedures.
In late 1992, the Director-General publicly denied ASIO authorship
of a document claiming to reveal that members of various ethnic
groups were spying within the Macedonian community. Similarly, he
denied a report that ASIO was monitoring or investigating aboriginal
Following a lengthy joint investigation by ASIO and the Australian
Federal Police, an ASIO officer, George Sadil, was arrested
in June and charged under the Crimes Act 1914 with several espionage
and official secrets related offences.
Sadil was committed for trial in March 1994 but, on reviewing the
evidence, the Director of Public Prosecutions decided not to proceed
with the more serious espionage-related charges. Sadil pleaded guilty
in December 1994 to thirteen summary charges of removing ASIO documents
contrary to his duty, was sentenced to three months jail, and released
on a twelve month good behaviour bond.
Concerned about the implications that material had been removed
from ASIO without authority, in October the Prime Minister announced
the appointment of Mr. Michael Cook AO (former head of the Office
of National Assessments) to conduct an inquiry into various aspects
of national security. Mr. Cook completed his review in 1994.
Parliamentary Joint Committee completed a review into the security
assessment process. Among other recommendations, the Committee recommended
that ASIO’s practice of not charging for security assessments be continued.
began preliminary planning for the Sydney 2000 Olympic and Paralympic
management was re-structured to enable it to operate within budget
and align management numbers and levels with the overall downsizing
following government wide resource reductions. An Olympics Coordination
Branch was created.
As part of its Olympic preparations ASIO began recruiting staff
with specialised skills, strengthened information collection and
analytical systems, monitored changes in the security environment
more broadly, improved its communications technology and provided
other agencies with strategic security intelligence assessments
to assist their Olympics security planning.
The Olympics Coordination Branch began planning for the Federal
Olympic Security Intelligence Centre (FOSIC) to provide security
intelligence advice and threat assessments to State and Commonwealth
authorities during the Sydney 2000 Games.
ASIO began addressing relevant recommendations of the Australian
National Audit Office report into Commonwealth security planning
for the Sydney 2000 Games
celebrated its 50th Anniversary.
To help ASIO meet the demands and challenges of the current and
future intelligence environment the ASIO Act was amended by
Parliament. The amendments mean ASIO is:
- able, under warrant approved by the Attorney-General, to use
tracking devices, to access data in computers and to open mail
carried by private mail contractors
- permitted to enter premises after a warrant has expired, to
remove a listening or tracking device
- permitted to collect foreign intelligence by using non-technical
means (e.g. using agents). Until this change ASIO could only collect
foreign intelligence by technical means (i.e. under warrant)
- able to pass information received from overseas liaison partners
to Australian law enforcement agencies
- allowed to charge non-Commonwealth agencies for protective
security and security assessment advice
- able to give security assessments for the Sydney 2000 Games
direct to State and Territory authorities until 31 December 2000
Other changes to the ASIO Act now mean that:
- search warrants issued to ASIO are valid for 28 days, as opposed
to the previous duration of 7 days, and may come into force on
a specified day after issue of the warrant or when a specified
- the Minister may appoint a person to act as Director-General.
Previously it was only the Governor-General who could make such
- the Director-General will be able to issue any type of warrant
in an emergency, except a warrant to collect foreign intelligence.
On a minor note, the spelling of the word 'Organization' in ASIO's
name was amended to replace the 'z' with an 's'. This brings the
spelling into line with current Australian standard.
The Financial Transaction Reports Act 1988 and the Taxation
Administration Act 1953 were amended to enable ASIO, for security
purposes, to access information held by the Australian Transaction
Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC); and for the Taxation Commissioner
to disclose tax information to ASIO. ASIO's access to AUSTRAC information
will be governed by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreed between
the Director-General of Security and the Director, AUSTRAC. ASIO's
access will be audited by the Inspector-General of Intelligence
and Security in accordance with the terms of a separate MOU between
the Inspector-General and the Director, AUSTRAC. ASIO's access to
Australian Tax Office (ATO) information will be governed by an MOU
between the Director-General of Security and the Commissioner of
Taxation and will also be auditable by the Inspector-General. ASIO's
access to and use of AUSTRAC and ATO information is subject to the
strict secrecy provisions in the Financial Transaction Reports and
Taxation Administration Acts.
An intensive three-year program of preparations for the Sydney
Olympics was finalised and ASIO activated the Federal Olympic Security
Intelligence Centre on 1 May 2000 to provide security intelligence
advice and threat assessments to State and Commonwealth authorities
during the Games.
The success of the Commonwealth's security support to the New South
Wales Police was demonstrated by the absence of incidents and the
completion of the safest Games in modern history. By the end of
the Paralympic Games ASIO had provided more than 151,000 Olympic-specific
security assessments for people accredited to the Games, provided
24,784 security clearances for the entry to Australia of some Olympic
family members and other visitors, and issued 532 Threat Assessments
specifically related to Olympic security. ASIO also made overt contact
with 98 communities as part of a Community Interview Program designed
to establish a channel of communication for any concerns relating
to Olympic security, and to explain ASIO's role in that context.
57 people of specific security interest were also interviewed to
assist in the prevention of politically motivated violence during
Amendments to the Telecommunications
(Interception) Act commenced operation on 22 June 2000.
These amendments enhance ASIO's ability to advise Government on
threats to security and to collect foreign intelligence, by enabling
ASIO to be better placed to meet the challenges of new technology.
In particular, ASIO may obtain telecommunications interception warrants
targeting named persons if a telecommunications service warrant
would be ineffective. This will provide the flexibility necessary
to compensate for targets using multiple services in order to defeat
launched the ASIO Web site at Parliament House on 22 June 2000,
providing a single point of access to all publicly available ASIO
material, including employment opportunities.
In September 2000 the Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO completed
an inquiry into 'The nature, scope and appropriateness of the way
in which ASIO reports to the Australian public on its activities'.
The Committee found that 'the total package of information available
to the Australian community about ASIO's operations exceeds that
available to citizens in other countries about their domestic intelligence
agencies', and made a number of recommendations concerning ASIO's
website and hard copy information.