We may not be a household name, but ASIS has been quietly protecting Australia and its way of life for over half a century. For many years, we did this entirely in secret. Nowadays, ASIS is integrated into the National Intelligence Community, contributing vital human intelligence that helps Australia navigate an increasingly complex world.
The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) was formed, falling within the Department of Defence portfolio, as a collector of foreign intelligence, primarily in the Asia-Pacific region.
Ministerial authority for ASIS shifted to what we now call the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
For over twenty years, the existence of ASIS remained a secret. The Service was first referred to in Parliament in 1975 and was not publicly acknowledged until 1977. The then Prime Minster, Malcolm Fraser, informed Parliament that "ASIS's capacity to serve Australia's national interest will continue to depend on its activities being fully protected by secrecy." This statement has been reaffirmed by successive governments.
Based on a recommendation by a Commission of Inquiry in 1995, the Intelligence Services Act 2001 ('the Act') came into force in 2001. It provides a legislative framework for ASIS and made public for the first time, our functions and limits. According to the Act, our primary role is to produce secret intelligence from human sources overseas. Additional tasks can be added to the mandate, as directed by the government.
In 2017 Mr Michael L'Estrange AO and Mr Stephen Merchant PSM jointly undertook an independent review of the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC). The Review found that Australia's intelligence agencies are highly capable and held in high regard by their international partner agencies. The Review also found that as a result of the transforming geopolitical, economic, societal and technological changes, the intelligence community will be faced with challenges that will intensify over the coming decades. To ensure the intelligence community is best-placed to meet these challenges, the Review makes a series of recommendations to provide a pathway to an even higher level of collective performance.
Today, ASIS is still part of the Foreign Affairs portfolio and is responsible to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.