After a 60-year wait, the first public speech by Australia's top spy was notable just for happening, as well as being illuminating and tantalising.

To rework Samuel Johnson: 'Sir, a spy chief preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.' Nick Warner (pictured) more than beat the Johnson benchmark, describing a spy agency that now goes to war with Australia's special forces, seeks out foes in cyberspace and works to disrupt people-smuggling networks. 

With Canberra enjoying a clear and crisp winter day, Warner reworked the spy-in-from-the-cold line. Excusing his huskiness, the Director-General of Australian Secret Intelligence Service explained, 'I'm the spy who came in with a cold.'

The first public speech by Australia's spymaster rightly started with a taste of history, including that infamous ASIS training exercise at Melbourne's Sheraton Hotel in 1983 that got so out of hand that it enlivened a Royal Commission (Warner described that training fiasco as 'ill-conceived and bungled').

Touching on the history, both good and bad, was a means to start to redress one of ASIS's core problems as a Canberra player: it has never had any ability to define itself in the open. The job of explaining or understanding the spy service – the term du jour is 'narrative' – has usually been a strange contest between journalists offering lurid yarns and official inquiries/royal commissions rendering reassurance and incremental change. In this game, the politicians, like the spies, have been defined by their refusal to say much that has helped understanding.

Warner has started the process of the spies claiming some right to tell their own history. It will be a limited right, but still useful both for the institution and for Australia.

From the history, Warner moved to how ASIS mines for 'diamonds', collecting HUMINT – 'covert foreign intelligence largely through intelligence officers managing a network of agents working overseas.' These days, that can mean Afghanistan or Pakistan, well beyond the traditional focus on Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

The three themes Warner identified were the changing role of ASIS, the vital importance of risk management and robust accountability, and the impact of a changing international order that means ASIS's 'operational sphere will become more challenging, volatile and dangerous than at any time since the Service's formation.'

The relationship between ASIS and the Australian military has developed some features that track the evolution in the interactions between the US military and the CIA. One of Warner's striking predictions was that in future the Australian military, especially the Special Forces, will always deploy with ASIS along:

Starting with the Iraq war, support for the Australian Defence Force in military combat operations has become an important task for ASIS. We have a major commitment in Afghanistan, and this will remain as long as the ADF is deployed there. Our work in support of the ADF ranges from force protection reporting at the tactical level through to strategic level reporting on the Taliban leadership. ASIS reporting has been instrumental in saving the lives of Australian soldiers and civilians (including kidnap victims), and in enabling operations conducted by Australian Special Forces. 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.

In the conversation after the speech, Warner gave some figures about the changing face of the people who work for a spy agency that now costs $250 million annually, nearly a five-fold increase on a decade ago. The rapid expansion has meant that ASIS is younger than the rest of the public service, with 65% of its people aged 25 to 45; 20% of new recruits have a non-Anglo background; 45% of the ASIS workforce is female. ASIS now has links with 170 different foreign intelligence services in 70 countries.

The speech was that of a spymaster who wants to assure Australia about the ambition and discipline of its spies, while stressing the highest levels of accountability and external oversight. It was also an effort to boost the ASIS 'brand name' and widen further that pool of potential recruits. Hacks and Royal Commissions will no longer have monopoly rights over the public narrative about Australia's spies.

Photo courtesy of ASIS.