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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 are included.

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.

1915-1949
Overview
Australia 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 involvement.

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.

1949

Directive

On 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 security assessments.

In August 1949 Justice Reed advised the Prime Minister he had decided to call the service the 'Australian Security Intelligence Organisation'.

1950s
Overview
During 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.

1950

ASIO Charter

On 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.
1951 ASIO Headquarters moved from Sydney to Melbourne.

Sydney Headquarters

'Agincourt' ASIO's first headquarters in Sydney
1954 While '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.
Petrov 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 Union. Defection
On 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.
Petrov defection A 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.
The 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."
1956 ASIO 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 1956.
1960s
Overview
ASIO's 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.

1960 The 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 since 1949.

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.

1963 Soviet 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.
1970s
Overview
Terrorist 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 and assassinations.

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.

1973 On 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.
1974 On 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).
1977 Justice 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 that:
  • 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 warrant

  • a Security Appeals Tribunal be established where people who were subject to unfavourable security assessments could appeal the assessment

  • 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 officers.

1978 Following 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.

1979 Justice 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.

1980s
Overview
In 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.

1980 ASIO 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.

1982 The 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.

1983 In 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 Security (KGB).

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.

1984 The 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 Act.

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 that:

  • 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, and

  • a separate office of Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security be established.

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.

1985 ASIO 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 in 1978.

1986 The 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.
ASIO's new Central Office in Canberra, replacing the Melbourne Headquarters, commenced operation on 2nd December 1986

Central Office, Canberra

ASIO Central Office (ACO)
1989 A permanent site for testing protective security equipment was established in the ACT.
1990s
Overview
The 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 in concert.

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 officials.

Preparations for the Sydney 2000 Olympic and Paralympic Games began.

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.)

1990 The 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.

1991 From 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.

1992 In 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 four years.

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 activists.

1993

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.

1994 The 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.
1995 ASIO began preliminary planning for the Sydney 2000 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
1997 ASIO's 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.
1998

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

1999 ASIO 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 event happens
  • the Minister may appoint a person to act as Director-General. Previously it was only the Governor-General who could make such an appointment.
  • 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.

2000

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 the Games.

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 investigation.

The Attorney-General 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.