Lifting the cloak on spies like us

The secret service has delivered an unprecedented glimpse of the character of Australia's spies - nearly half of them women, of mixed ethnic heritage, and overwhelmingly young.

And the self-confessed man of ''carefully cultivated shadows'' confirmed Australian spooks have helped with the arrest of dozens of terrorists in south-east Asia as recently as a few months ago.

Nick Warner, head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, delivered a landmark speech in Canberra yesterday on the transformation of Australian espionage to a packed audience - including at least three officials from the Chinese embassy taking copious notes.

Mr Warner said the work of the service had new urgency and importance, from the collection of secrets to include operations against terrorist networks, people smugglers and alongside troops in Afghanistan.

It marks the first time in the 60-year history of the secretive outfit a serving director-general has given a public address.

''ASIS reporting has been instrumental in saving the lives of Australian soldiers and civilians, including kidnap victims,'' he said.

But he also offered a rare insight into the work of intelligence officers in the field, describing ''a cadre of highly trained intelligence officers'' that recruit human sources overseas known as agents to obtain secrets and every year produce thousands of reports.

''Intelligence in our particular realm can be defined as secret information gleaned without the official sanction of the owners of that information,'' he said.

In the crowd was former Australian ambassador Jeremy Hearder - son of one of the three founders of the secret service, former British army officer Roblin Hearder, who in 1952 based the espionage operations out of a military base in Melbourne.

For years, Mr Hearder was unaware of his father's secret work until he was officially briefed as a diplomat about the existence of ASIS.

''We knew he was working in Victoria Barracks, but we assumed he was working in retirement for the Defence Department,'' Mr Hearder said.

Mr Warner hinted at the ''far-flung'' operations of Australia's spies across Asia, the Pacific, south Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East - naming threats from extremists in Indonesia, Pakistan and Somalia.

With regard to Afghanistan, he said: ''The ASIS personnel deployed with the ADF have developed strong bonds, and it's difficult to see a situation in the future where the ADF would deploy without ASIS alongside.''

He also warned of cyber operations as ''the most rapidly evolving and potentially serious threats to our national security''.

About 65 per cent of his spies are aged between 25 and 45 - with 20 per cent of recent recruits drawn from an ethnic background. Three quarters speak a second language.

He said Australian spies do not use violence, blackmail or threats - but its officers can use weapons in self-defence or to protect agents.

Mr Warner said ASIS operated on an annual budget of $250 million.

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