History of Australian intelligence and security

This page outlines the history of the various Australian intelligence and security services from Federation until the present day.

It also includes links to some of our records about these agencies.

Before World War I

The Australian Government assumed responsibility for national security and intelligence at Federation in 1901. However, there was no single agency responsible for these areas and considerable overlap between civilian and military authorities. 

Wartime security

During World War I, the government created security and intelligence agencies to deal with perceived threats within Australia. 

The British Government established an Australian branch of the Imperial Counter Espionage Bureau in January 1916. Known as the Australian Special Intelligence Bureau (SIB), it maintained a close relationship with the police forces.

The Commonwealth Police Force was created in 1917. In 1919, the Commonwealth Police Force and the Special Intelligence Bureau merged to form the Investigation Branch (IB).

The Investigation Branch was responsible for wartime security until 1941. These functions were then taken over by a wartime organisation: the Commonwealth Security Service (CSS).

The army was also responsible for some aspects of wartime security, including:

  • the internment of enemy aliens
  • censorship
  • internal security in the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia.

Security intelligence

Security intelligence is information collected to protect Australia from activities such as:

  • espionage
  • sabotage
  • politically motivated violence
  • acts of foreign interference.

The Investigation Branch was responsible for security intelligence until after World War II. It investigated people and organisations whose activities were considered subversive or detrimental to the security of Australia. This included foreign nationals and social and political groups such as the Communist Party of Australia and the New Guard.

The new Commonwealth Investigation Service (CIS) took over security intelligence functions in 1946. But by late 1947, serious security leaks in Australia had left British and US intelligence authorities unwilling to continue sharing information. 

These concerns (and other security issues) led to the establishment of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in 1949. ASIO became responsible for security functions that previously belonged to the Commonwealth Investigation Service.

Foreign intelligence

Foreign intelligence agencies are responsible for collecting secret intelligence overseas. 

In the late 1940s, the Australian Government established a special operations organisation in the Department of Defence. In 1952, this became the Australian Secret Service.

The organisation was transferred to the Department of External Affairs in 1954 and renamed the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS).

Signals intelligence

Signals intelligence agencies collect and analyse information from intercepted electronic communications.

Australia began its signals intelligence activities in 1942, when the Australian Army and RAAF created Central Bureau with the US Army. The same year, the Royal Australian Navy and US Navy created Fleet Radio Unit, Melbourne (FRUMEL). Both agencies were set up to obtain intelligence by intercepting Japanese military communications.

In 1947, the Australian Government established a permanent signals intelligence agency in the Department of Defence. Initially called the Defence Signals Bureau, it changed its name to the Defence Signals Branch in 1949, the Defence Signals Division in 1964 and the Defence Signals Directorate in 1978.

The agency was renamed the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) in 2013.

Four women in uniform seated at desks operating code machines.

World War Two – Fleet Radio Unit Melbourne (FRUMEL), Code Room. NAA: A10909, 3.

Intelligence assessment and analysis

In 1947 the Department of Defence established the Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB) to collate, evaluate and distribute intelligence on particular countries.

JIB was renamed the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) in 1969 and then the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) in 1989.

In 1977, an additional intelligence analysis agency, the Office of National Assessments (ONA), was created in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. ONA was renamed the Office of National Intelligence (ONI) in 2018.

Law enforcement

The Commonwealth Police Force was created in 1917 to enforce federal laws and conduct investigations independently of state police forces. 2 years later it was merged into the Investigation Branch.

A new Commonwealth Police Force was formed in 1960. It took on the responsibilities of the Commonwealth Investigation Service (CIS) that were not transferred to ASIO as well as broader law enforcement responsibilities.

The force has had several name changes, becoming the Australia Police in 1975 before reverting to the Commonwealth Police Force the same year. In 1979 it was renamed the Australian Federal Police.