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Less cloak, but more dagger?

The head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Nick Warner, will today become the first head of our overseas spy force to deliver a public speech.

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The Australian Secret Intelligence Service does not use violence, blackmail or threats in its work to protect Australia against terrorism and other security threats, according to the spy agency's chief, Nick Warner.

It wasn't always so, as staff and guests at Melbourne's old Sheraton Hotel - now the Mercure in Spring St - learned to their alarm on November 30, 1983. The biggest public cock-up in Australia's secret intelligence history would change the nature of the service forever.

Nick Warner, Director-General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), during a public address, the first by a Director-General in the organisation's 60-year history, in Canberra on Thursday 19 July 2012. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Nick Warner, director-general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, on his way to making a public address, the first by a director-general in the organisation's 60-year history, in Canberra today.

That night, a heavily armed squad of trainee ASIS agents carried out a spectacularly bungled training operation, smashed down a door, wielded sub-machine guns and generally ran amok.

The fiasco ended with several secret agents being arrested by police, who thought they'd been involved in an robbery.

The embarrassing wash-up was a $362,500 pay-out by ASIS to the hotel and traumatised staff, a special reference to a royal commission whose conclusions were scathing and the publication by The Sunday Age of five names said to be those of undercover operatives, to the general horror of the intelligence community.

A deeply frustrated Victoria Police Force hoped to throw the book at the blundering spies for possession of prohibited implements such as machine guns, silencers and housebreaking tools, wilful damage, aggravated burglary, assault and using disguises without lawful excuse.

But the then director-general of ASIS, John Ryan, refused to co-operate, and the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions eventually decided there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone with anything, despite all the evidence of criminal damage and assault with a weapon.

What happened at the Sheraton was supposed to be a simulated surveillance and "hostage rescue" of make-believe foreign spies.

The problem was that the seven junior secret agents involved had only been in training for three weeks.

They neglected to ask permission of the hotel management and when they failed in an attempt to charge into a room on the 10th floor, they bashed it down with sledgehammers.

The hotel manager was alerted by a frightened guest and hurried to the 10th floor, where he was promptly backed into a lift by one of the intruders, taken back to the ground floor and tossed out into the lobby.

Unsurprisingly, police were called.

By that stage, the ASIS gang thought it best to retreat. The agents, disguised with ski masks, emerged from the lift on the ground floor. As if they were in a James Bond film, they were brandishing pistols and Heckler and Koch MP5 sub-machine guns, a couple of them equipped with silencers.

In the best tradition of the movies, they rampaged through the hotel's kitchen, heading for two get-away cars strategically placed outside.

But the cops arrived, managed to stop one of the cars and arrested several of those who were supposed to be training to protect Australia's interests on foreign soil. They refused to produce any form of identity.

It was but a short step from there to a full-blown public outrage, inquiries and general humiliation for the international spy service. It was a shocking blow to an organisation based on the British Secret Intelligence Service, whose agents are authorised to kill when granted the famous Double O licence.

Quietly, ASIS removed the right of its agents - available under Ministerial discretion at the time - to undertake covert operations involving unorthodox paramilitary-type tactics.

Which is why, all these years later, in the first public address by a director-general of ASIS in the service's 60-year history, Mr Nick Warner will be able to say his agents don't use violence, blackmail and threats.

A relief, perhaps, to hotel managers, but something of a disappointment for the entertainment industry.

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