Biggest security threats ahead: ASIS

The threats posed by the Cold War will be outdone by the multifaceted dangers of the 21st century, according to a landmark speech by the head of Australia’s spy service today.

In the first public speech by a chief of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service in its 60-year history, Nick Warner will tell a Canberra audience today of the ongoing need for the service’s skill and that the menace of terrorists acquiring chemical, biological or nuclear-type weapons pose one of the greatest threats to security.

Mr Warner will describe the future as ”more challenging, volatile and dangerous than at any time since the service’s formation”, according to notes provided to Fairfax yesterday.

ASIS was formed in May 1952, but for the next 23 years its existence was kept secret even from members of parliament. In 1975 Gough Whitlam referred to the agency in Parliament and two years later Malcolm Fraser publicly declared its existence.

Advertisement It has also experienced remarkable growth since the terrorist attacks of 2001, with its annual budget appropriations growing from $54 million in 2002 to $246 million this year.

Mr Warner will label as the ”ultimate nightmare for security planners” concerns that a terrorist group may acquire weapons of mass destruction, and describe why the intelligence ASIS gathers is needed. ”It can provide early warning of planned terrorist attacks, information on insurgent networks, and, more broadly, the intentions of foreign political adversaries,” he will say.

He will also discuss the increasing joint role the service undertakes with the military’s Special Operations Command, in particular the SAS. In ASIS parlance, such a role is known as ”support operations”.

”The challenges of helping to prevent terrorist attacks and providing the intelligence edge to Australian soldiers in the field have impacted greatly on ASIS.” ”Undertaking supporting operations that achieve a direct outcome, as distinct from our more traditional intelligence gathering operations, is now of increasing importance.”

As part of their expanding role in 2003 the Howard government gave ASIS officers permission to use weapons for self defence – a right denied them since the infamous Sheraton Hotel training incident in 1983 when trainee ASIS officers waved guns in the faces of hotel guests and assaulted the hotel manager. The incident sparked the 1984 Second Hope Royal Commission, which recommended officers be forbidden from carrying guns or engaging in violence or paramilitary activities.

Mr Warner’s decision to make today’s speech may well have been encouraged by the first public speech, in October 2010, by the head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6.

The MI6 chief, Sir John Sawers, told an audience that the clandestine role played by such agencies remained vital to national security.

”Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not there as a cover-up. Secrecy plays a crucial part in keeping Britain safe and secure,” he said.

Plans to write an official history of the service were scotched two years ago after concerns were expressed about the cost and the threat the venture would pose to security.

Dylan Welch, Daniel Flitton

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