Australia has 6 intelligence agencies: Here’s what they are and the work they do

Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono-Tony Abbott
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (L) speaks with Indonesian President Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono (C) during a bilateral meeting at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta on September 30, 2013. Photo: Getty/Oscar Siagian

Relations between Indonesia and Australia are at their lowest point in years this week after it emerged Australian spies tapped the Indonesian president’s mobile phone in 2009.

Indonesia is demanding an apology which Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said he will not give.

The documents cited in the reports came from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. His leaks have caused many to contemplate the role of intelligence organisations in a digital age, after the reach of US operations was, against that country’s will, made public.

Like the United States (though on a far smaller scale) Australia’s intelligence gathering is carried out by a variety of agencies, which sit under different government portfolios. Some recruit spies — known in the trade as human intelligence — while others bug phones, and use satellites to produce imagery.

We have put together an overview of each of the main agencies, and its role — based on publicly available information.


The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation is the country’s domestic spy agency. It collects intelligence on security threats which could harm Australians at home, and also assesses the information. It is the only intelligence organisation that both gathers and analyses.

As at 30 June 2013, according to its most recent report, ASIO employed 1791.8 full-time equivalent staff. It reports, through the Director-General of Security, to the Attorney-General.

While ASIO has no power of arrest, it conducts a range of security assessments, intelligence gathering and counter-espionage activities to protect Australian businesses, government agencies, defence installations and citizens from an attack.


The Australian Secret Intelligence Service is the overseas spy agency. Like the CIA in the United States, it collects human intelligence — which is jargon for recruiting a network of contacts who provide information to handlers.

Officially, ASIS’s role is described like this:

ASIS’s primary function is to obtain and communicate intelligence which is not readily available by other means, about the capabilities, intentions and activities of individuals or organisations outside Australia.

Relying on the information it collects from human sources, it then produces reports which are given to relevant policy makers and government agencies.

The agency was not formally acknowledged until 1977, and doesn’t release its full-time headcount numbers. Reportedly, ASIS agents have operated overseas alongside Australian special forces in locations in Africa. ASIS agents are allowed to be armed for self-defence.


The Australian Signals Directorate (formally the Defence Signals Directorate)

The agency that bugged the Indonesian president’s phone, the ASD is akin to the United States NSA. Like ASIS it is a collection agency. It gathers signals intelligence — where ASIS uses personal relationships to find secrets, ASD uses technology. It sits in the Department of Defence, which does not break down staff numbers for its intelligence branches. Its mission statement, “Reveal Their Secrets – Protect Our Own”, has become widely known this week after it was on the published documents that revealed the Indonesia targets of Australian spying.


The Defence Intelligence Organisation is an assessment agency, also under the Department of Defence. It analyses foreign developments and produces intelligence assessments for the Australian government. This can be political, social and military developments overseas which “affect another country’s ability to wage war or to threaten regional or international stability.”

It also provides assessments of technological and scientific developments other countries make, such as new weapons systems.


The Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation is a collection agency. It gathers imagery and other “geospatial intelligence” to support Australia’s national interest. It is also in the Department of Defence.


The ONA is a one-stop-shop for the prime minister and other senior cabinet members. It gathers information from all the other agencies as well as from diplomatic reporting, and open sources such as news reports and then provides advice to the country’s leaders. Basically, it helps the government understand global developments which could affect Australia.

It operates under its own legislation, which stipulates the independence of its judgments.

Independent federal MP Andrew Wilkie first came to public attention after he resigned from the ONA and turned whistleblower, claiming that intelligence reports about Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq were being manipulated for political purposes by the Howard Government.