20 November 2020

The spy of Oz and the open lecture on espionage

Liviu Ioniţă

In a less normal action in the 68-years history of the foreign Australian intelligence service, the “top espionage” presented itself in front of the cameras for a series of interviews made by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Image source: Wikimedia

Paul Symon, the ASIS chief, chose to discuss about the purposes and principles of the secrete agency and about espionage in the 21st century.

A while ago, in September, before completing its mandate, the MI6 chief, Alex Younger, who was not at all a public person, offered an interview for Financial Times, where he expressed his opinion: the Russians did not create the things that divide us – we did that.

At the beginning of October, Willian Evanina, the director of National Counterintelligence and Security Center, and general Paul Nakasone, the director of National Security Agency, have participated at a video warning conceived to discuss on the 2020 elections, the foreign interference and the spread of propaganda on social media platforms.

Also, recently, the director of the Russian foreign intelligence service, Sergey Naryshkin, has stated for Sputnik that the Russian intelligence school is one of the best in the world and the CIA is the main SVR enemy.

What the secrete services chiefs said is interesting, but it is all the more interesting that they have decided to do it.

The intelligence agencies are going public as they have never done before.

In a cyber era, where the intelligence firestorm and the access to information are hard to handle, it seems that the secrete services have chosen to be less secrete and share more “information” to the public.

Thus, somehow, the public opinion becomes one of the beneficiaries of the intelligence agencies, together with the traditional and legal beneficiaries: the state institutions.

Paul Symon is not a normal spy…

….the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was saying, back in 2018.

With a military career that lasted 35 years, the director of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, (ASIS), general-major Paul Symon, had, from 2011 to 2014, another important position in the intelligence community: director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO).

When he was at the DIO leadership, Paul Symon has created a blog called The Inquisitor, where he was posting about the emerging threats or he was sharing information about the development of a new strategic plan. That was a blog he often used to estimate personnel’s moral.

In the meantime, Symon changed the organization and he now thinks that between the armed forces and ASIS there are many “cultural” resemblances. For example, those who are joining the armed forces, just like those joining ASIS, have an “operational disposition”: they understand risk, they train with risk, they know that “calculated risk” is “at the heart and soul of what they’re trained to do”.

But the current ASIS chief, in the 4 interviews given to Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said he thinks that there are some differences as well: in ASIS, an element of the “culture” is that all successes are “celebrated calmly”, meanwhile “for multiple reasons”, in the armed forces, the “success, part of the culture, is publicly celebrated”.

In ASIS, the “heart and soul” are represented by “the cultivation, the recruitment and the validation of agents who are betraying the secrets of their nation”.

This is what creates a relation that helps them to get the information and then – here Paul Symon is quite unclear – “we bring the intelligence back to the nation”.

Back to the nation wherefrom that intelligence was… collected?

Indeed, Paul Symon underlines in his interviews what he calls “intelligence diplomacy”, one of the ASIS functions.

The Australian intelligence agencies are staying connected to the counterpart intelligence agencies from “almost all the countries” and are sharing intelligence, sometimes on “very sensitive topics that the diplomats would rather not discuss”. Intelligence diplomacy, as the ASIS chief thinks, involves the support Australia gives to those countries, “which are in the nearby region” and which “need a certain support, help, a certain capability to allow them to defend their own sovereignty, better than they are doing it in the present”.

So, maybe this is what Paul Symon talks about when he refers to… intelligence “given back to the nation”. Or maybe not.

We are trading the “crown jewelry”

In order to exchange information, you must first have it, you must know what you have, therefore analyze the data.

And the Australian model is, according to Symon, quite hybrid unlike, for example, the CIA, where the “collection and analysis of the information is mixed”, as there is the risk for one to “contaminate” the other, or for one of the processes to “direct the other one in unhealthy methods”.

ASIS is a “collection agency”, which is “working for the intelligence requirement of the analysis agencies”, together with the other agencies which are delivering human sources intelligence, sometimes SIGINT and other times obtained from open sources.

The challenge involves answering to more requirements, to more questions, with “the highest trust level”, as between analysis and collection there is a “very positive dynamic tension”.

The current Australian collection/analysis intelligence model was set up by Robert Hope (judge of the Appeal Court, who led the Royal Commission for Intelligence and Security, known also as the First Hope Commission, dedicated to the assessments and recommendations regarding the Australian intelligence community).

Robert Hope reformed the agencies, has founded a community composed of six agencies, out of which two are dedicated to intelligence analysis: Office of National Assessments, currently the Office of National Intelligence and Join Intelligence Organization, currently the Defence Intelligence Organization, led at some point by Paul Symon.

The two intelligence analysis agencies are supported by four collection agencies: Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation (AGO) and Australian Signals Directorate (ASD).

The boundary line between the analysis and collection was set up by Robert Hope and became the “foundation for the functions each service had” and, then, through Intelligence Services Act 2001, a “clear presentation of the functions and legal attributions” of the agencies, which are currently 10.

If there is a Hope model different to those of its partners, how is the information exchange working with the “Five Eyes” member states?

Paul Symon responds, also quite unclearly: “Hope was very wise” in realizing that in intelligence it is also about „giving not only taking”, which continues to work today as well.

In fact, “If you want to have a relationship with a counterpart organisation, it can’t just be take. You actually have to put some crown jewels on the table to get some crown jewels off. And that’s the way we work”.

The role of the human resources in the digital era

This is what most of the countries need, thinks Paul Symon, it is a combination of cyber, SIGINT and HUMINT.

„Spies can go in places diplomats cannot, places the internet search engine cannot reach”.

And so, is it still possible the intelligence collection from human sources now when there is a „digital abundance and lack of cyber harmony”?

There is an opportunity for the secret agents to “swim in that noise” in an invisible method, and the way this is developed is a reflection opportunity, given that “that’s where the future of the Service is”.

People will develop “trust relations and will share secrete”. What are these relations good at?

For example, “So when you’re trying to understand senior leaders around the region, or further afield, you’re trying to understand the way they’re thinking, their vision for their country, the risks that they see, and the opportunities they see. Those sorts of conversations are normally held in inner circles, and are between humans, and will always be that way”.

Agents recruited from abroad are people willing to take risks, to betray the secrets of their countries “for lots of reasons”.

The ASIS chief also talks about one of these reasons and we can state that he does it quite romantically: “I would argue that if you’re in a closed society than there is a stronger possibility that you will be concerned about the direction of the country. As a general rule closed societies run the risk of a greater number of individuals willing to betray the secrets of their country, because they are not happy, they don’t get a voice. We get a voice every three years, we go down to the local school and we vote. But there are a lot of people that don’t. That is one motivation”.

How are foreigners recruiting spies for Australia to spy for ASIS?

Symon says that “history is replete with spies both good and bad”, who – necessarily – “wanted to have that relationship”.

The process, says Symon, is not that different to how journalists are cultivating their sources. Journalists, just like spies, want to get secrets, understand what is happening and who is doing that.

The environment ASIS employees are working in becomes, apparently, “harder and harder” – which is “an increased of the decision to use technology”, to act in the grey zone, which is “a dangerous environment, even if it is not a conflict zone”.

The understanding of the law, and the basis upon which they are undertaking activities in the national interest, has to be something that is very well understood.

And, not least, the written record of “everything ASIS does”. All ASIS activities are written, “but not only the nature of the meeting with an agent and the conversation or intelligence or information which is passed”, but “considerable detail about body language, personal life, all of that is recorded”.

In certain cases, the officers can use “reasonable force”.

The use of weapons is a very sensitive topic within ASIS, because the Hawke government, through the Royal Commission and Robert Hope, has disarmed the agency after a training exercise which significantly deteriorated the Sheraton hotel from Melbourne, in 1983.

After the incidents when five intelligence agents have literally attacked the Sheraton hotel, armed with tear gases and machine guns, in a drill dedicated to training the agents to rescue hostages, the intelligence agents are no longer allowed to have guns.

The arsenal was eliminated in ASIS. Even after the Intelligence Services Act 2001, eh interdiction on using guns was maintained until 2004, when the ASIS got back the right to have guns to self-defense purposes.

Therefore, the ASIS officers can use reasonable force, but not violence, as ASIS cannot have a paramilitary or attack role.

How are the spies of Oz (a colloquial name for Australia)?

According to the ASIS chief, the institution led by him is recruiting and preparing the Australian chiefs to be sent abroad, where their job is collecting and coordinating agents.

For such an activity, there is not typical ASIS spy, because they “want different profiles”. The agency has a catchphrase: “IQ+EQ=ASIS”.

“There are some parts of the intelligence organisation where you can accommodate a higher IQ [intelligence quotient] and a lower EQ [emotional intelligence quotient]. In ASIS, it has got to be pretty balanced so ultimately they’re the qualities that we’re after. Someone, individuals who are intelligent but also have a very good emotional quotient and can read a situation, can read relationships. I need people with a really good antenna, because at the end of the day a lot of judgments are pushed down to the individual – they’ve got to make some very fine judgments.”

“So our individuals need to be balanced, IQ/EQ, balanced in their own personal comfort with their ego and those sorts of things. But I would make the point, there is no such thing as a typical officer.”

The ASIS officer who serves abroad must follow a strict set of traditional espionage rules. But that disciplined Australian officer, who follows the rules, must find foreign citizens ready to break the rules.

Although it might seems it is all about “tensions and dissonance in the relation of an officer and an agent”, Symon thinks that “many things” are like a “guarantee” that “both parts feel comfortable” and that there is understanding: “We would never ask an agent to do something that is improper or illegal in the sense of undertaking violent activities or anything like that”.

Who offers the guarantees?

Nothing simples, if we listen to Paul Symon: the ethical framework set in the organization he leads. “There’s quite a strong internal discipline to the way we do the work that we do”.

How do the Australians know if ASIS is spying for them and not actually them?

Clarifying the objectives and principles of the secrete agency are, once again, underlined by Paul Symon, at the end of the four interviews: “We are not some maverick organisation sitting outside. We are the Australian people [and] we are comprised of them”. ASIS has a good story to tell the Australian people.

And the people have an opinion. In the Australian media, the reactions to Paul Symon’s interviews were quite different.

They said the top spy did nothing by “move slowly, slowly” to a “carefully controlled condition” (Hamish McDonald) or that the interviews answered to the need to make secret services “as transparent as possible to their past, current and future activities” (Peter Edwards).

But, Paul Symon’s interview was, above all, an approach of the “mystic mithology”, a presentation of ASIS “as an organization, rather than a fantasy”.

Translated by Andreea Soare