HAMISH MCDONALD July 21, 2012
Illustration: Simon Letch
It was one of those awkward moments you used to have with 1970s cars, slamming the door with the button pressed down only to realise the keys were still inside, made worse by being on a roadside in the mountains of West Java.
Happily, as a search for a wire coathanger and a lengthy fishing for the door latch through the rubber seal loomed, the chief spook from the Australian embassy (we all knew who they were) stopped to help. Producing a strange device attached to his key ring, he picked the lock in a trice.
Spies are handy people, and you never know when you might need them. That thought has kept the Australian Secret Intelligence Service in business for 60 years, and in the position to crow a bit about its record, as its chief, Nick Warner, did this week.
At times, the service has had to fight a lot of scepticism about its worth. William McMahon, the prime minister who first blew the gaff on its existence to the public in 1972, once told me he found its reports tended to be ''bar-room gossip''.
For the first 30 years of its existence, it could not make up its mind whether it was a classic espionage agency or a special forces unit. As well as sending its recruits off for training with Britain's MI6 - where the final test was sometimes a journey across Britain with no money or papers, and your name on the police wanted list - the service ran a little school down near Point Lonsdale for skills in kayaking and similar derring-do.
A botched exercise with machine guns at the Sheraton Hotel in Melbourne in 1983, just as Labor came back into power, was almost the end. But partly persuaded by royal commissioner Robert Hope's finding it turned up occasional ''diamonds'' of intelligence, then foreign minister Bill Hayden decided to keep it going. It was hauled up from Melbourne, where it had lurked in the Victoria Barracks at St Kilda under the moniker of ''Central Planning'' and put in more sober suits.
In 2001, it got its guns back after September 11 (though only for self-defence, Warner assures us), and has gone from strength to strength, with a budget five times greater at $250 million, by adding the post-Cold War targets of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and people smuggling, to its repertoire.
As much as intelligence types like ex-MI5 chief turned novelist Stella Rimington like to dismiss James Bond-style scenarios and talk about the painstaking work of building up intelligence pictures from many tiny clues, the idea of fanatical villains scheming to blow up the world - or at least major cities - with fiendish weapons is actually a real preoccupation.
Australia's spies operate where ''terrorism intersects with non-proliferation'', Warner said. ''The threat posed by terrorist groups who might seek to acquire WMD is the ultimate nightmare for security planners and, of course, a prime concern for us and all in the Australian intelligence community.''
But to listen to Warner on Thursday, you'd almost think the service was a model of contemporary correctness. ''Australians expect actions of their intelligence agencies to be accountable, and that ASIS act with propriety and in accordance with Australian law,'' he said. ''I can assure you ASIS is an agency with the highest level of accountability and external oversight.''
He added: ''ASIS doesn't use violence, or blackmail or threat,'' saying it can use weapons to protect its officers and their agents, not to extract intelligence.
We assume, too, the service's staff - 45 per cent now female - are not expected to use the other method often attributed to their Russian and Israeli counterparts; sexual seduction. Of course, that still leaves theft and bribery two traditional arts of espionage.
The agency has always been the ''humint'' side of our external intelligence apparatus, relying on agents and inside information to augment communications intercepts, observation of military movements and the like by military agencies.
As Warner pointed out, its most crucial importance lies from revelation of intent - by a foreign power or group - rather than capability.
Some of the ''diamonds'' produced by the service in earlier times have seeped into wider knowledge. Its station in Jakarta closely tracked Indonesia's change of power in 1965-66, and snaffled the West's first blueprint of the Soviet Union's MiG-21 fighter. Its Tokyo station helped our iron-ore companies find the real price Japan's steel mills were willing to pay.
Indeed, in its first two or three decades, the service used to ''list'' certain trusted foreign correspondents, and invite them in at St Kilda to swap notes. But by the late 1970s - when a post-Vietnam backlash against the ''cult of intelligence'' was producing a wave of exposes, including about the supporting role played by the service for US machinations in Cambodia and Chile - that had gone by the board.
These days, the diplomatic service and the ASIS officers it shelters is generally more distant with journalists. And instead of the old D-notice system of voluntary non-publication of certain national security information, the media is subject to criminal penalty for disclosing the identity of any service staff aside from the director-general, whose appointment is public.
Naturally enough, Warner cannot give details. But what he did disclose is the service has moved far outside its original south-east and east Asian ambit, with a presence in south and central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and central Europe, as well as liaisons with traditional anglosphere allies.
It has an operation in Afghanistan that provides tactical intelligence for the Australian forces in Oruzgan province, as well as more strategic intelligence on the Taliban leadership. ''ASIS reporting has been instrumental in saving the lives of Australian soldiers and civilians, including kidnap victims, and in enabling operations conducted by Australian special forces,'' Warner said. He also claims ''many significant and unheralded successes'' in disrupting people-smuggling syndicates.
Unlike its domestic counterpart, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, which has engaged the military historian David Horner to write its story, the service has not revealed a plan for its official history, so we have to take its value largely on the assurance of our foreign ministers. ''Today we are still producing diamonds, just in greater quantities,'' Warner said.