Outgoing spy chief Paul Symon on Bernard Collaery, ASIS's rigorous recruitment process, and why narcissists need not apply
For the latest flood and weather warnings, search on ABC Emergency
WANTED: The best and the brightest from Australia's universities to work for one of Australia's most interesting — and secretive — organisations.
The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) — the country's foreign espionage agency — is always on the look-out for new staff.
University medals and first-class honours are welcome. If you're in the top five per cent of achievers you're of particular interest. Narcissists need not apply.
But above all else, there's one attribute the interview panel will be looking for: you should be a person of "low ego" — someone content to have a career travelling the world and engaging in special operations but without any acknowledgement from family, friends or the public.
You may be involved in dramatic missions, as ASIS was in the rescue of Australians in Kabul last year. But you can't tell anyone about them.
Australians have just been given some new insights into the country's most sensitive agency. After five years running ASIS, Paul Symon is about to retire. He sat down with me and Geraldine Doogue to reflect on his term and discuss the challenges his agency faces.
Formed in 1952, ASIS's existence for decades was kept secret even from most politicians. It has the word "secret" in its title for good reason. If foreign governments discover that someone in their country is an ASIS officer — or, to put it colloquially, a "spy" — that officer is in danger.
If the officer's cover is blown, anyone in the foreign country who's had contact with that officer faces possible imprisonment or death. Whether or not that person has actually been an "agent" — a source of information for the officer — their country may accuse them of being a traitor.
No agency in Australia has a more rigorous vetting process than ASIS. It's on a par with that for the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). Vetting can take two years and an applicant needs to be able to account for virtually every month of their life.
The vetters want to know if an applicant has lived in a foreign country so they can check they're not an agent for that country — a "deep agent", in intelligence parlance.
Australia has two main human intelligence agencies. ASIO is domestically focused. Its aim is to cultivate sources to learn of any threat to Australian citizens or infrastructure.
Beneath ASIO's Canberra headquarters, an isolated room is literally floating, suspended inside the rest of the building. This is what we found inside.
ASIS is internationally focused. Its aim is to identify people in foreign countries who may know of any threats to Australia's citizens or interests. To use Symon's term, to try to identity people as close to "the locus of power" as possible. ASIS's information is only as good as its sources.
Herein lies the danger. Because the best contacts will usually be in the inner circle of power, there's the possibility that if ASIS tries to recruit them they'll go to the top of that "locus of power" and alert them. This is the pointy end of an ASIS officer's work.
This is where an ASIS officer needs to draw on all their training and judgement — to recruit or not to recruit? It's probably the most important judgement an ASIS officer will make — intelligence insiders call this a "go or no-go conversation". If they have misjudged the person they've been cultivating, the whole recruitment attempt can go badly wrong, leading to the ASIS officer being expelled, the host government taking great offence or agents' lives being endangered.
The best officers run a network of informants, or agents, and get high-quality information without their identity and that of their agents ever being uncovered. In return, various inducements can be offered to the agents — these could range from Australian citizenship, university scholarships for their children, or cash.
It's difficult to judge how good an intelligence service is. We rarely hear of their successes as they don't want to telegraph their methods or sources. As a general rule, the less you hear about an intelligence service, the better it's probably performing — spy services tend to make headlines when something goes wrong.
On that metric, ASIS would be judged well. However, one ignominious episode related to an operation in East Timor in 2004. It was revealed that ASIS officers used a ship moored about 500 metres from the Cabinet office in Dili to pick up audio from devices hidden in the office.
The aim was to give Australia an advantage in negotiations over royalties from resources which lie between the two countries.
Bernard Collaery, a Canberra lawyer, was facing five charges, including that he conspired with his former client, a former ASIS officer known as Witness K. He strongly rejected the charges. This year Attorney General Mark Dreyfus discontinued the prosecution of Collaery.
Bernard Collaery was charged in 2018 for allegedly helping his client, an ex-spy known only as Witness K, to reveal details of a classified ASIS mission in East Timor.
That operation and prosecution began before Symon's term. Asked whether the case had harmed the agency's reputation, he said: "Firstly, I'm a great believer in open justice. I also hold statutory responsibilities, also in law. It was designed from our formation back in 1952 but strengthened and clarified by Justice Hope in some signature work that he did in the 70s and 80s.
"That places statutory responsibilities on me to protect aspects of the work that we do. So really, what we've been seeing play out in the last couple of years in this particular matter is balance between open justice and between government's responsibilities for security and national security.
"And ultimately the government has decided to drop the matter, and my comment would be that, because I had to fulfil responsibilities, and because the law has a disposition to open justice, we only got as far in this matter as a judge who's the appropriate person — not me or government — a judge was trying to balance this, on one hand, open justice and on the other hand in affidavits that I was presenting to the judge the very real concerns that I had in relation to this particular matter.
"And the judge — Justice Mossop — was dealing with these issues, I think, with great care and attention. My approach to the affidavits I wrote absolutely and very centrally highlighted my respect for open justice as a key premise of the legal system. These are not absolute matters and it really fell to a judge — he was working through the process of how to deal with sensitive information.
"And now the matter is closed. I feel that with the responsibilities that I carried did that conscientiously to navigate through the precept of open justice but also the legal responsibilities that I carry in my job."
For decades ASIS has been more media shy than its counterparts. Symon's openness is welcome. So what's the hardest part of working for ASIS?
"The hardest part is simply that they are meeting with sources who are undertaking activities for us, trusting us, and if that is compromised places them in some peril," Symon said. "That is the nature of our business and of course we train our people to be able to build that trust and confidence in the sources that we work with."
The belief in unending progress and utopian visions leads us to freedom and democracy, but it also leads to the gulag and the gas chamber.
The agency needs people, he added, who "fundamentally have a high IQ and a high EQ but they've got a low ego".
"I need quiet achievers because their successes will not be able to be broadcast. They need to be comfortable in their own skin, they need to be balanced … It's interesting because this generation coming through … we do screen them for issues like to what extent social media and the centrality of their identity and personality is the focus of their social media interactions," Symon said.
A lot of young people, he said, use social media to make a "statement" about themselves, to tell everyone their "life story" — but they're not the kind of people he needs.
"I want people who use social media because it's such a rich medium for learning around a diversity of issues … I think the interesting thing for us is the type of people we want in the organisation, how they think about social media. People with a big ego, or narcissistic, we tend not to introduce into the service because we've found there's a downside to having those types of people in our organisation."
Symon praised ASIS's efforts last year when Kabul was falling. But we put to him that some people might say that ASIS could not tell Australians that the Taliban were returning and that was their job.
"That's very true and I think that we need to clearly reflect on why the environment moved so quickly from underneath our feet," he said.
"I wish I could answer in really clear terms to your listeners exactly why that was. War is a very complex activity — human will, morale, motivation was swinging very quickly and I think there were policies at play that caused a lot of people to think very carefully about what chances there were of being able to sustain the will of the people and the will of the government. We learnt again in conflict that morale, will-power can shift very quickly."
Yes, Symon said, it is the job of intelligence agencies to help governments know and understand what is happening.
"I do think that we did a very good job — certainly in the latter stages we were able to help government know and understand what was going on, decisions made around the embassy whether to keep it open or keep it closed," he said.
"All of that information was provided to government but right until the end, in those last moments, very good intelligence that saved lives was also passed by intelligence agencies to our people on the ground."
Symon outlined the culture he's tried to foster — including training staff to try to assess the motivations of sources.
"We … have to go through a process of validation … We have psychologists in the organisation — we use a whole of techniques to understand the motivation and to understand … the integrity of the relationship that we're putting together here," he said.
"We have to do that because of the risks that we're taking. If the benefits outweigh the risks … then we'll proceed with an activity or a relationship but if the risks are too great … we might decide not to proceed on that basis."
Symon has also brought in a counsellor, who is available to staff who feel "uncomfortable ethically" about their work.
"The ethics counsellor has been trained at the St James Ethics centre and undertaken significant study into ethics to help frame the discussion for the officer who's uncomfortable," he said. "More often than not, off the back of that conversation, the officer who's uncomfortable will actually participate in that activity."
And on diversity and inclusion, Symon is confident his agency has a very diverse work force. "It genuinely should be very difficult for anyone to identify who an ASIS officer is," he said, "so therefore diversity and inclusion, in that sense, is central to the way we need to think about recruitment."
With any intelligence service, the public will never be privy to everything. But two individuals currently have oversight of ASIS — Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Symon. All indications are that under their watch, ASIS is in good hands.
Australians can only hope that this will continue under the new head of ASIS, to be announced shortly by Ms Wong.
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
This service may include material from Agence France-Presse (AFP), APTN, Reuters, AAP, CNN and the BBC World Service which is copyright and cannot be reproduced.
AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)
Outgoing spy chief Paul Symon on Bernard Collaery, ASIS's rigorous recruitment process, and why narcissists need not apply