No more guns after ASIS hotel bungle
Big brother ... ASIS was established by the Menzies government to collect foreign intelligence and carry out counter-intelligence work.
THE Hawke cabinet disarmed and effectively castrated the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the local equivalent of the CIA, after its bungled training exercise on November 30, 1983, extensively damaged the Sheraton Hotel in Melbourne.
The security committee on May 7, 1985, not only banned ASIS holding weapons but also recommended that ASIS's directive be amended to exclude it from carrying out covert action, either as special operations or special political action.
It also vetoed training exercises for special operations.
ASIS, and to some extent its ''big brother'', the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, were seriously embarrassed by the Sheraton raid, which exposed them as the Keystone Cops of the spy world.
Modelled on Britain's MI6, ASIS had been established by the Menzies government in 1952 to collect foreign intelligence and carry out counter-intelligence work. But few knew of its existence until the training exercise to stimulate the rescue of a foreign defector from foreign spies went belly-up on the 10th floor of the Sheraton.
The operatives had not told Sheraton staff about the exercise. When a guest complained about a disturbance the manager, Nick Rice, investigated, only to be forced back into a lift and ejected on the ground floor.
He called the police. Then ASIS officers emerged from the lobby lift, some in balaclavas and waving machineguns and semi-automatics, and escaped to waiting cars. Victoria police stopped one of the vehicles and the ASIS operatives refused to produce any identification.
Australia laughed loud. But not the Hawke government.
Justice Robert Hope, already conducting his second royal commission on the intelligence business, was asked to report on the Sheraton fiasco. Hope's censored report, tabled in Parliament on February 28, 1984, was scathing: ''It is difficult to accept that any person could have seriously believed that the police or hotel management did not need to be notified that a group of men, armed with submachineguns, and wearing masks or balaclavas, intended to conduct a para-miliary exercise in and around a city hotel.''
Resolution of the idiocy then became bogged down in legalities. The Commonwealth wrung its hands over providing the names of ASIS operatives to the Victoria police.
In December 1983, personnel took out an interim High Court injunction to stop the Commonwealth divulging their names on a confidential basis.
Then five of the 12 identified themselves to the Victoria police and a little bit later the High Court decided the Commonwealth had no enforceable duty to the ASIS operatives to keep quiet.
The upshot? Nobody was prosecuted but ASIS was nobbled when the second Hope royal commission report recommended the service be disarmed and made to stop playing para-military games.
There was, however, a bright spot for ASIS and ASIO. They had sought and received cabinet support in keeping their operational records away from the public under provisions of the Archives Act.
In 2004 the Howard government re-armed ASIS. The agency was also permitted to take part in para-military operations after the odour of the Sheraton shambles had forced it to sit on the sidelines for 19 years.