's primary domestic intelligence
service. Known as ASIO in its short form (pronounced ae-zee-oh)
Under the stewardship of the Attorney-General, ASIO gathers information about activities or situations that might endanger Australia’s national security, including
espionage, sabotage, politically motivated violence (PMV), the promotion of communal violence, attacks on Australia’s defence system, and acts of foreign interference. They also perform less exciting chores like checking that Army recruits aren't Indonesian spies, advising government departments what kind of safe they should buy to store last year's annual report, or translating the online blogs of disgruntled Westie teenagers to see if their bad poetry reveals they are card-carrying members of Jemaah Islamiah. ASIO does not investigate mainstream criminal activities, nor lawful protests. ASIO does not covertly work overseas; such intelligence gathering is performed by ASIS (Australian Secret Intelligence Service), part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
There are around 550 serving ASIO officers (this number may have risen since the Bali Bombing and the War on Terror). ASIO officers are career Commonwealth public servants. They do not wear uniforms, carry arms or have any powers of arrest or interrogation. I guess they receive PSS or CSS superannuation pensions and work a standard 37.5 hour week. ASIO is headed by a Director-General, Dennis Richardson.
ASIO was established in 1949 after Operation Venora, an Anglo-American exercise to intercept and decipher Soviet diplomatic cables, revealed that a communist spy ring was active in Australia. It spent much of the fifties investigating communist subversion, with its greatest success being in 1954 the defection of Vladamir Petrov, a Soviet diplomat and MVD intelligence officer, and his wife.
In the 1960s it gained telephone interception powers. Protecting Australia against commies continued to be ASIO's main duty, and it 1963 it found that another Soviet diplomat, Ivan Skripov, was attempting to cultivate a local woman to be a spy. Unfortunately for Ivan she was an ASIO agent, and he was kicked out of the country. Also in the 1960s ASIO investigated, but generally did not interfere with, Vietnam War protesters.
Terrorism started to become an issue in the 1970s. ASIO investigated a small war between Serbian and Croatian emigres in the community, and bombings directed against Yugoslav interests. The centre-left Labor government of Gough Whitlam did not wholly trust ASIO, and so in spectacular fashion Attorney-General Lionel Murphy raided their offices in search of evidence that it had colluded with the Croatian Ustashi. Nothing was found, but it did prompt a Royal Commission to investigate what kind of powers and transparency ASIO ought to have. Many of its recommendations were codifed in the ASIO act of 1979.
ASIO allowed itself to be slightly more open in the 1980s, advertising for staff, using a media liaison officer and organising itself to be available for external scrutiny. There was some occasional PMV directed against Israeli, Turkish, South African, Yugoslav and Vietnamese government targets, and yet another Soviet diplomat moonlighting as a KGB agent, Valeriy Ivanov, was unmasked and declared persona non grata.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed that ASIO would be irrelevant in the 1990s. Instead, it was involved in defusing bushfires arising in Australia's increasingly multicultural community : Serbs versus Croats versus Kosovars, Macedonians versus Greeks, Turks versus Kurds and white supremicists versus everybody else. ASIO failed to prevent an MEK inspired mob from looting the Iranian embassy in Canberra, or a drunk graphic arts student firebomb the French consulate in Perth.
But ASIO redeemed itself when, thanks to its vigilance, terrorism did not make an appearance at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games (the only incidence was when two gaol escapees carjacked a vehicle transporting some Korean atheletes, thankfully for the crims they weren't Israelis, or they would have a set of beautifully grouped entry wounds on their foreheads). Some unknown outfit at the time calling itself Al Qaeda had planned an attack on a nuclear reactor in Sydney during the Olympics, but the plot was foiled by ASIO's New Zealand counterparts.
After September 11, ASIO was busy collating information on Australian citizens who may have trained or associated with Al Qaeda, including wild colonial oddball David Hicks. It also monitored firebombings and other kinds of harrassment directed against Jewish, Muslim and Christian targets. And after the Bali Bombing in October 2002 ASIO worked with the Indonesian government in investigating Jemaah Islamiah, who it turned out had members in Australia. In a tense political environment ASIO sought, but failed, to get parliamentary backing for an expansion of its powers, including the right to detain people without charge or legal representation.
Since 1986, ASIO has been headquartered in Canberra. Their website's URL is www.asio.gov.au. ASIO officers are expected to be circumspect about their employment, so when asked what they do for a crust, invariably they would benignly reply with: oh, just stuff, or ahhh, currently at the Attorney General's, or the ultimate conversation eliminator: I'm a public servant.