Australian spies helped Afghanistan exit

·2-min read

It was a simple but poignant message.

"The team are well. Tired yet committed, while there are still friends to Australia outside the wire. The end is in sight and, while some of the scenes are horrific, the joy of getting people to safety is sustaining us."

An Australian Secret Intelligence Service officer - known only as Jane to keep her identity secret - had just helped over 4100 people out of one of the most dangerous places in the world, Taliban-seized Kabul.

The message was securely sent to ASIS director-general Paul Symon who simply responded: "Good work. Get some sleep."

Mr Symon identified the emergency airlift out of Afghanistan last year - involving a quietly inserted ASIS team, working with the CIA and MI6 - as one of the success stories of Australia's foreign intelligence collection agency.

On Tuesday, he gave a rare glimpse into the operations of the agency at an event hosted by the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

"We are an agency of few words in a crisis. Committed to difficult missions and concerned for the welfare of our people. In sum, we don't just work on the front line - we work beyond it," he said.

He said the events in Afghanistan reflected a world that was shifting "sometimes faster than we can dance".

ASIS was created on May 13, 1952, with its founding mission "to obtain and distribute secret intelligence on foreign powers" and conduct special operations.

Mr Symon said recent months had "underlined the fact that our adversaries are very real, and they do much of their work in the shadows".

"Our adversaries are spying on us in Australia and abroad. And worse, they are seeking to weaken our institutions and bend our values," the former deputy chief of army said.

"The world is experiencing more than just a realignment in power.

"The global rules-based order is being manipulated and subverted."

Australia needed to continue to use intelligence to protect and advance its interests "prudently and determinedly", he said.

As well, technology was being used by authoritarian regimes for a range of ends, including public control and counter-espionage.

"We cannot avoid or fight this wave of digital transformation - we must drop in on the wave and ride it."

Without naming China, he said ASIS was benefiting from espionage activities that emerge from "suppressed dissent within authoritarian states".

"When leaders abolish fixed political terms, for example, they become responsible and accountable for everything - including the disillusionment that emerges from within.

"This provides us an edge."

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