Inquiry into the use of weapons by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS)

On 29 November 2013, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) provided to the Minister for Foreign Affairs the final report of her recent inquiry into the provision of weapons and the training in and use of weapons and self-defence techniques in ASIS. While the IGIS reported that overall ASIS ‘has managed the training in and use of weapons and self-defence techniques well’, she did identify two breaches of the Intelligence Services Act 2001 (ISA) involving firearms training, and a number of other breaches of the ASIS Guidelines for the use of weapons and self-defence techniques.

Amendments made in 2004 to the ISA, which sets out the role and functions of ASIS, enable particular ASIS officers to be trained in and equipped with weapons and self-defence techniques for the purposes of self-defence and the defence of fellow officers and others ‘cooperating with ASIS’. Schedule 2 of the ISA requires that ASIS provides the IGIS with copies of all approvals issued by the Minister authorising the provision of weapons and training in the use of weapons or self-defence techniques, and a written report detailing the circumstances in which an ASIS officer discharges a firearm other than during training. Each year, the IGIS inspects these approvals and despite never disclosing the number of authorisations granted, ever since the use of these provisions was first reported by the IGIS (in the 2004–05 annual report), the IGIS has consistently reported each year (up until 2010–11 after which the reporting became less explicit) that authorisations have been small in number and considered by the IGIS to be necessary and appropriate.

According to the IGIS, the inquiry was initiated in April 2013 and ‘not prompted by any particular concern’, but rather was intended as a routine review of compliance by ASIS with the legislation—almost ten years after its introduction. The 2012–13 IGIS annual report states that the inquiry specifically examined authorisations; training; procurement, issuing, storage, transportation and carriage of weapons; and reportable incidents.
The unclassified executive summary of the inquiry report states that ‘ASIS now have staff members and agents issued with weapons in a number of countries’. The IGIS notes her satisfaction in the latest annual report that ‘the need for limited numbers of ASIS staff to have access to weapons for self-defence in order to perform their duties is genuine’ and that ‘appropriate controls are in place to limit the circumstances in which weapons may be used’ (p. 21).
However, the annual report also notes that a routine review in September 2012 of ASIS records relating to the provision of training in weapons and self-defence techniques identified ‘a number of instances of non-compliance with the relevant guidelines’ which largely related to ‘the lack of formal approval for exemptions of mandatory training pre-requisites and a small number of occasions where qualifications lapsed’ (pp. 21–22). In response, ASIS improved its administrative processes and issued updated guidelines in December 2012 to ‘provide greater clarity about the requirement for obtaining and maintaining weapons qualifications’ (p. 22).
The IGIS inquiry noted that both of the two breaches involving firearms occurred ‘within controlled weapons training environments’ and ‘were not indicative of systemic issues’. It also identified two other ‘main concerns’, the first of which related to the ‘lack of central governance of weapons policy and procedures in ASIS’ which led to delays in capsicum spray and batons being issued to some overseas-based staff for their own protection after the provision of such equipment had been authorised by the Minister. The second concern related to the finding that ASIS ‘did not have adequate controls in place to provide assurance that there was compliance’ with the internal requirement that a person with a blood alcohol content above zero must not be issued with a weapon:
While there was no direct evidence that any ASIS staff member had retrieved a weapon with a blood alcohol level greater than 0.00, the Inspector-General considered it was possible it had occurred. (This does not necessarily mean that any person had been issued with a weapon while actually impaired by alcohol.)
As a result of the inquiry, the IGIS made six recommendations overall, related mostly to the ‘governance of weapons policy and procedures’, although they are not outlined in the unclassified executive summary. The report notes that ASIS is already in the process of implementing a number of them.
To date, the Minister for Foreign Affairs does not appear to have publicly mentioned the IGIS inquiry or discussed the unclassified report of its findings, despite the fact that in close to a decade of operation, the provisions enabling the use by ASIS of weapons and self-defence techniques appear to have operated relatively smoothly.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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