Report

Report on the Australian Secret Intelligence Service - public edition

31 Mar 1995
Description

This Inquiry was prompted by controversies that faced the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) in the early 1990s, and resulted in the legislation that guides ASIS today.

This is the first time a digitised version of the Commission of Inquiry into the Australian Secret Intelligence Service's public report has been made available.

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) was established on 13 May 1952, but only publicly acknowledged in 1977. It is responsible for covert foreign intelligence collection and was modelled on the United Kingdom's Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6).

In 1993 ASIS became a focus of media controversy following allegations by former officers. These led to media reports that (107) "'ASIS regularly flouted laws, kept dossiers on Australian citizens… and hounded agents out of the service with little explanation".

Two former ASIS officers and one of their wives appeared in an episode of Four Corners on 21 February 1994. They made allegations of mistreatment, inefficiency, disregard for civil liberties, and unaccountability.

On 23 February 1994, Senator Gareth Evans, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, announced that there would be a judicial inquiry into ASIS.

On 15 March 1994 the Commission of Inquiry into the Australian Secret Intelligence Service was appointed, headed by The Honourable Gordon J Samuels AC QC and Mr Michael H Codd AC.

The terms of reference were:

(a) to inquire into the effectiveness and suitability of existing arrangements for -

  1. i)  the control and accountability of ASIS;
  2. ii) the organisation and management of ASIS;
  3. iii) the protection of ASIS intelligence sources and methods;
  4. iv) the resolution of grievances and complaints relating to ASIS; and

(b) to consider whether any changes in existing arrangements are required or desirable.

This was the first judicial inquiry into ASIS since the Hope Royal Commission (90) of 1983.

The result was a 3-volume, 33-chapter report to the Government. 15 chapters were released, in whole or in part, for this public version of the report.

Investigating the Four Corners allegations, the Commission ruled that "the level of factual accuracy about operational matters was not high". The Commission also "discovered no evidence capable of supporting the conclusion that ASIS is operating out of control".

However, it also said that that "in a number of respects, the control and accountability, and the internal organisation and management, of the Service could and should be improved" and provided recommendations for reform.

Gareth Evans, when tabling the report in Parliament on 1 June 1995, stated that (690) "ASIS is well-managed in the performance of its primary task. But its internal organisation and management has at times in the past experienced problems as a result of an internal culture that places a high premium on secrecy and loyalty. These problems unfortunately led in some cases to the inappropriate treatment of some individuals."

One of the report's key recommendations was to create a legislative basis for ASIS, as it only previously had only operated under a Ministerial directive. This recommendation led to the Intelligence Services Bill (107), passed by the Howard Government in 2001.

Gareth Evans had established the Commission of Inquiry on the grounds that "an Inquiry was needed to provide a reassurance to the public of the proper functioning of ASIS". However, ASIS has not been free from controversy since.

Australia is currently being challenged at the International Court of Justice in the Hague over allegations that ASIS bugged Timor-Leste's cabinet office for to gain commercial advantage in oil and gas negotiations. With media reports (80) of former ASIS officers intending to testify, there are parallels with the events that prompted this Inquiry in 1995.

The outcomes of the current controversies will shape public perception of whether the reforms resulting from this report were adequate, or whether further review and reform is needed.

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Part of the Policy History Collection. Digitisation of this report has been supported by the National Library of Australia.

Reproduced with permission of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Publication Details
Publication Place: 
Canberra
Published year only: 
1995
1197
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