The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) had pretty much succeeded at remaining secret. While the Australian government had (finally) acknowledged its existence for the first time in 1977, the majority of Australians were unaware of the group's existence. It was (and still is) a secret service, after all.

But the Australian public became embarrasingly aware of ASIS on November 30, 1983 when they staged a hostage extraction training raid in the Sheraton Hotel, Melbourne. The ASIS agents planning the training wanted to make it as realistic as possible. So they chose not to notify the local police, the hotel owner or hotel staff, or any other members of the public in or near the building. The raiding party were armed with weapons but no ammunition.

The hotel manager was first made aware of the incident when he caught the lift to the 10th floor of the building to respond to a guest's call notifying him of a disturbance on that floor. Upon exiting the lift at that floor he was grabbed by a stranger telling him to "Come with me, you're not going to get hurt, but come with me."

The agents wore nothing to identify them as being on a training exercise, or a part of ASIS. Some of them wore masks and they carried weapons from a Browning 9mm automatic pistol to a Heckler and Koch submachine gun. They smashed a hotel room door with a sledgehammer, brandished weapons in public, and even pointed a submachine gun at the face of a hotel employee. They also racked up a AU$70 bill in one of the hotel rooms for alcoholic drinks.

A Royal Commission into the incident was held, and the resulting report was scathing. The ASIS officer in charge of special operations (and this operation in particular) was identified as being primarily responsible. This officer thought that the hotel staff would not be aware of the exercise :the hotel staff would not even know that the team were in the hotel. Erm... you don't think someone will notice a strange man taking out a hotel room door in an occupied hotel with a sledgehammer? But it was also claimed that he did not tell his trainee not to break the door down.

The Commissioner also had a very clear response to the ASIS argument that the public had not been notified in order to retain "realism" during the exercise:

"It simply was not necessary to break down a hotel door with a sledgehammer, to attempt to restrain the hotel manager, to carry weapons, and to display them to unwitting members of the public. The authenticity of the exercise would not have been compromised by a greater degree of simulation. "

The Acting Director General of ASIS was identified as having given approval for the training exercise without pursuing full knowledge of its details. He was then formally reminded of his responsibility of ensuring that special operations in the future were conducted "legally, properly and safely".

The Commission also listed the possible breaches of criminal law that the training exercise had allowed:

  1. Firearms Act 1958
  2. Crimes Act 1958
  3. Summary Offences Act 1966
  4. Vagrancy Act 1966
  5. Motor Car Act 1958
    • Failure to provide a driver's licence or refusing to state name and address when requested to do so by a member of the police force s.29
  6. Common Law

The commission did not go so far as to recommend that charges be brought before individuals, stating that this was the role of the Victorian Police. The Minister of Foreign Affairs (to whom ASIS is responsible) submitted that

"the persons responsible for such breaches of state law as may have been committed in the course of or in relation to the exercise neither intended to commit such breaches as breaches nor committed such breaches for their own purposes but rather in accordance with the directions given to them by persons whom they reasonably believe to be authorised to give such directions, no good purpose would be served by the prosecution of the persons."

Court cases ensued as the involved ASIS officers fought to keep their identities from Victorian authorities as they attempted to investigate the incident. A newspaper (The Sunday Age) published the assumed names of five of the agents from the Sheraton exercise. The High Court of Australia ruled that any contract between the officers and the Commonwealth which forbade the release of an individuals name were (under these circumstances) unenforceable, so no action was taken against the newspapers and even though they never released the names of those being investigated, the police were not prevented by law from revealing the information.

The Victorian Police continued to pursue charges, but the government took steps to protect their spies-in-training. Special legislation was even passed, specifically supressing the names of the officers in court proceedings arising from the training exercise. Finally, despite the Premier of Victoria claiming that no one in Victoria was above the law, repeated public and private requests by the Commonwealth government prevailed and the court matters did not proceed.

The official response was that the courts could not possibly charge specific individuals because they had worn masks.

The Royal Commission on Australia's Security and Intelligence Agencies: Report on the Sheraton Hotel Incident was completed in 1985. Much of that report is still secret, but among other things it recommended that ASIS cease their attack-style operations, that use of weapons by ASIS officers be discontinued and that the agency's existing weapons and explosives be disposed of. Later in 1985 the Australian Prime Minister announced that these recommendations had been accepted by the government.

The government also put into place strict rules for the authorisation and carrying-out of operations in all Australian security agencies, as well as creating the Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security to carry out auditing of security and intelligence agencies.

So the Australian spies, like naughty children, were caught breaking the rules and had their toys taken away. I can imagine the whinging: "But all the other spies can use guns!".

Further information / resources:
A Study by the Australian Institute of Criminology - http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/lcj/wayward/ch8t.html
The Prime Minister addresses Parliament on the incident and resulting investigations - http://docushare.unisa.edu.au/docushare/dsweb/HawkeServices/Document-360
Parliamentary Library of Australia - Intelligence Services Bill 2001 (includes some info on the incident) http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/bd/2001-02/02bd011.htm

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.