Records of Australia's security, intelligence and law enforcement

Black-and-white photograph of a wireless message sender, 1962
The wireless message sender used for espionage purposes by Ivan Skripov, First Secretary of the Russian Embassy in Australia. (NAA: A432, 1963/2272)

The National Archives holds many records that deal with security and intelligence matters. Our holdings cover the range of activities undertaken by Australian Government agencies, including ASIO, over the course of the 20th century. For example, there are records concerning the internment of enemy aliens in World War I and II, Cold War espionage activities and protests against the Vietnam War.

Many records, such as alien registration documents, internment files and surveillance dossiers, include information about individuals and their activities. Other records document the establishment, administration and activities of Australia's federal security and law enforcement agencies, such as:

  • wartime security and intelligence, including internment
  • collection and analysis of intelligence related to Australia’s internal security
  • collection and analysis of foreign intelligence
  • law enforcement

Administrative history – agencies involved in security and intelligence

Before World War I, no single Australian Government agency was dedicated to security, intelligence or law enforcement. When the Australian Government assumed responsibility for national security and intelligence in 1901, it was not clear which agences performed these functions, and there was considerable overlap between the civil and military authorities. Similarly, there was no Commonwealth agency responsible for enforcing federal laws.

The outbreak of World War I hastened the establishment of agencies with special responsibility in these areas, and throughout the 20th century their number, role and specialisation have continued to change and grow.

Wartime security

The organisation of security intelligence in Australia was placed on a more formal footing after the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914, and with the perceived threat posed by agent provocateurs, fifth columnists and saboteurs within Australia.

In 1915, the British government arranged for the establishment of a Commonwealth branch of the Imperial Counter Espionage Bureau in Australia. This branch, known as the Australian Special Intelligence Bureau (SIB) was established in January 1916. The SIB maintained a close relationship with state police forces, and later with the Commonwealth Police Force. The Commonwealth Police Force was created in 1917 to conduct investigations independent of state police forces. In 1919, the Commonwealth Police and the Special Intelligence Bureau merged to form the Investigation Branch within the Attorney General's Department.

For more information about wartime security agencies and to access records they created, see:

During World War II, security intelligence matters were dealt with by a range of military intelligence units, including the Department of the Army and the Department of the Navy. For more information about these agencies and to access records they created, see:

Security intelligence

To collect and analyse security intelligence is an ongoing role of the Australian Government, not confined just to wartime. Security intelligence refers to information collected to protect Australia and its people from activities such as espionage, sabotage, politically-motivated violence and acts of foreign interference.

Created in 1946, the Commonwealth Investigation Service (CIS) took on security intelligence functions that had previously been the responsibility of the Investigation Branch. As well as a Central Office, there were CIS offices in each capital city.

By late 1947, serious security leaks in high government circles in Australia necessitated improvements to Australian security. British and American intelligence authorities had become aware that shared defence-related material they provided to Australia had been leaked to the Russians. They were unwilling to continue information sharing until the situation was remedied.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was formed in 1949. It took over responsibility for security functions that had previously been with the Commonwealth Investigation Service. The Prime Minister's directive to the first Director-General of Security, Justice Geoffrey Reed, was to defend the Commonwealth from external and internal dangers arising from espionage and sabotage, and from the actions of persons or organisations judged to be subversive to the security of the Commonwealth.

The National Archives holds a range of records about and created by ASIO. Unlike most other Australian Government agencies, ASIO is not obliged to deposit its records with the National Archives once they reach 25 years of age. Records are only transferred in response to requests for access by researchers.

ASIO surveillance files are often of great interest to researchers. But in many cases, ASIO files refer to people and organisations because they came into contact with persons or organisations who were under surveillance, not because they were themselves under investigation or surveillance. 

For more information about the CIS and ASIO and access to records they created, see:

Further information about ASIO records can be found in the following fact sheets:

Foreign intelligence

In the late 1940s, a special operations organisation was established within the Department of Defence. In 1952, this became the Australian Secret Service. This organisation was transferred from the Department of Defence to the Department of External Affairs in 1954, becoming the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). ASIS is Australia's agency for collecting secret intelligence overseas.

Like ASIO, ASIS only transfers records to the National Archives in response to requests from researchers. Although there is a right of public access to ASIS records after 30 years, few records are available for public access in the National Archives. All are held in Canberra.

There are other records in the collection, created by the Department of Defence and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, that concern the establishment and general activities of ASIS.

For more information about ASIS and access to records it created, see:

Signals intelligence

In 1947 the Defence Signals Bureau was established within the Department of Defence as the Australian Government's cryptologic and communications security agency. In 1949 it changed its name to the Defence Signals Branch, in 1964 to the Defence Signals Division, and finally in 1978 to the Defence Signals Directorate.

The Defence Signals Directorate has two principal functions:

  • to collect and disseminate foreign signals intelligence (Sigint)
  • to provide information security (Infosec) products and services to the Australian Government and its defence force

For more information about the Defence Signals Directorate and access to records it created, see:

Intelligence assessment and analysis

In 1947 a Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB) was established within the Department of Defence to collate, evaluate and distribute intelligence on particular countries. JIB was renamed the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) in 1969 and then became the Defence Intelligence Organisation in 1989.

In 1977 an additional intelligence analysis agency, the Office of National Assessments, was created within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Most JIB/JIO material can be found on defence-realted files and those of the Department of External Affairs and the Prime Minister's Department.

For more information and access to records, see:

Law enforcement

Adopting the same name as the agency disbanded over 40 years before (see 'Wartime security' above), the Commonwealth Police Force was formed in 1960. It took on responsibilities of the Commonwealth Investigation Service (CIS) not previously transferred to ASIO. As with the offices of the CIS, there were offices of the Commonwealth Police Force in all capital cities.

Since its formation in 1960, the Commonwealth Police Force has undergone several name changes, becoming the Australia Police in 1975, reverting to the name Commonwealth Police Force later the same year and becoming the Australian Federal Police in 1979.

For more information on agencies responsible for federal law enforcements and access to records they created, see:

Records of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security

The Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security (RCIS) initiated a comprehensive inquiry into Australia's security services, including their history, administrative structure and functions. From 1974 to 1977 the RCIS created and accumulated over 2000 records – largely paper files and documents, with some published reference material and audio recordings. Some reports of the RCIS were published in 1977 and 1978.

National Archives released RCIS records on 27 May 2008. For details, see our overview of records of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security.

Records of the Royal Commission on Espionage

The Royal Commission on Espionage was held from May 1954 to March 1955. Its purpose was to inquire into information given to the Australian Government by Vladimir Petrov, a defector from the Russian Embassy in Australia, about espionage and related activities in Australia. The Royal Commission and the events that led to it continue to hold a particular place in our historical imagination.

The Royal Commission created a large number of administrative records, as well as publishing an interim and final report. These records are complemented by records of the Cabinet, the Prime Minister's Department and ASIO.

National Archives (then the 'Australian Archives') released records of the Royal Commission on Espionage as its first major release under the Archives Act 1983, in September 1984. To find out more, see The Royal Commission on Espionage, 1954–55.

Finding and accessing security and intelligence records

Balck-and-white photograph of five people talking together
An ASIO surveillance photograph taken at a Communist Party of Australia faction meeting held in Sydney on 2 June 1963. (NAA: A9626, 39)

You can search for security and intelligence records in our collection database, RecordSearch. A simple way to begin is by doing a keyword search for relevant terms, for example, 'Petrov', 'internment' or 'defence signals'.

For general information about how to find records and use the database, see our step-by-step guide to researching in the National Archives.

If you are searching for records about an individual, use NameSearch – it lets you enter a name and search only 'Security and intelligence records'.

Resources listed below highlight National Archives finding aids and publications that might help you in your search for relevant records.

Access to security intelligence records

Many security and intelligence records are open, or partially open for public access. However, it is quite common for some information in archival records dealing with security, intelligence and law enforcement to be withheld from public access because of the harm their release would cause to essential interests such as national defence, security or international relations, or to the privacy of individuals.

Information about the most common types of sensitivities in security and intelligence records, and how to appeal if you are refused access, can be found in:

Resources for researching security and intelligence

You can find more information about security and intelligence records in the National Archives resources listed below.

Book on civilian internment – ten internees' stories and archival records

> In the Interest of National Security: Civilian Internment in Australia during World War II

Fact sheets – for an introduction to the issues and records

Fact sheets on security and intelligence

Research guides – for a deeper view of the issues and records

National Archives research guides are available to view in our reading rooms and to purchase. Many can also be downloaded for free from this website.

> Finding Families: The Guide to the National Archives of Australia for Genealogists

> Australia in Focus: Photographs in the National Archives

> Sound Recordings in the National Archives

> Safe Haven: Records of the Jewish Experience in Australia

> Chinese–Australian Journeys: Records on Travel, Migration and Settlement, 1860–1975

> Chinese Immigrants and Chinese-Australians in NSW

> Allies, Enemies and Trading Partners: Records on Australia and the Japanese

> Near Neighbours: Records on Australia’s Relations with Indonesia

> The Sinking of the HMAS Sydney

> Collections in Perth: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records

> Collections in Melbourne: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records

Online biographies – compelling stories based on archival research

> Jessie Street – Uncommon Lives: Human rights campaigner with a substantial ASIO file

> Muslim Journeys – Uncommon Lives: Surprising stories of adventure and adversity of Australia's Muslim pioneers

> Wolf Klaphake – Uncommon Lives: German scientist and inventor who was interned in Australia during World War II

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019