Who is watching the watchers? It's a bureaucratic maze

3 December 2018


Guarding Australia in an alphabet soup of spy organisations, Australia needs a new National Security Adviser to balance competing advice with clear strategy.

The government commissioned the Independent Intelligence Review (IIR) which published its report in mid-2017 at the same time as the Home Affairs Department (HAD) was created, yet without HAD having been part of the IIR’s mandate.

The arrangement has generated concern about contestability, oversight and governance, leading some to wonder: who watches the watchers; who steers the nation’s security strategy?

A trifecta of issues relating to governance, the environment and great power contestation coupled with the effects of the information revolution have heightened concerns. These concerns pointed to the need for an adjustment to Australia’s national security and intelligence oversight arrangements. However the arrangements announced in mid-2017 stand in contrast to the carefully developed mechanisms built over generations that existed prior. So, how did we get here and what change is required?

Several royal commissions and reviews have driven incremental but substantive reform of the national security and intelligence apparatus over the past five decades. Along the way, the government introduced key oversight elements to ensure heightened accountability.

Today, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) has enduring royal commission investigative powers. The parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security (PJCIS) and the Intelligence and National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM) perform complementary oversight functions, as do the secretaries committee on national security (SCNS) and the national security committee of cabinet (NSC) when it comes to higher-level management of intelligence and national security.

Until this year, the Office of National Assessments has overseen the six principal national intelligence agencies: ONA itself, ASIO, the Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation (AGO) and the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO).

The 2017 Independent Intelligence Review (IIR) recognised the need for some deep-seated reform that went beyond these six intelligence organisations to include the intelligence arms of the Australian Federal Police (AFP), Border Force (ABF), Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) and the Transactions and Reporting Centre (AUSTRAC). They were to be placed under the oversight of the ONA, which itself is renamed the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), and placed under the expanded remit of the IGIS and the PJCIS.

What the 2017 IIR also did not anticipate was the creation of the Home Affairs Department - announced with the launch of the IIR report. The HAD construct, focused on domestic and border security, complicated the IIR’s implementation and soon emerged as a body as significant in terms of national security and intelligence arrangements as the Defence Department.

Incorporating the ABF, AUSTRAC, AFP, ACIC and ASIO, the HAD arrangement has led to the heightened risk of a reduction in contestability of advice to government and disrupted the long-established intelligence and national security governance model.

Unravelling the HAD construct may prove problematic and risky and therefore should not be embarked upon lightly. But additional safeguards are required to bolster the independence of these component bodies and to enhance the prospect of robust internal debate and contestability of advice to government.

ASIO, in particular, with its important but intrusive surveillance powers, should be quarantined from unduly close integration into the HAD bureaucracy. After decades of Cold War controversy, ASIO emerged with clear bipartisan support and an increasingly important role. In light of its sensitivity and importance, its authority and independence should be closely guarded.

This points to the need for higher-level coordination and strategic management - a role that points to the need for a new national security adviser.

A national security adviser (NSA) was appointed by the Rudd government in 2007, with a broad mandate but without statutory authority. After all, intelligence is not an end in itself: a national security strategy has to be developed to know how to use it. But the NSA soon fell victim to bureaucratic contests and lost its mandate after Rudd’s fall.

Beyond the creation of a CDI, the combination of a strong HAD, more powerful ONI, and a significant Defence intelligence apparatus, leaves national intelligence elements with more ambiguous oversight than before. Other than the PM, who is in charge of managing national security? Defence, HAD, DFAT and ONI share federal responsibilities, but the current construct leaves scope for considerable bureaucratic conflict.

Somebody needs to manage this array to balance the need for healthy contestability of advice with a clear security strategy for the nation. The trifecta of geostrategic competition, environmental challenges and governance and security issues, point to the need for an NSA with statutory powers and ready access to the Prime Minister and the national security committee of cabinet, as well as access to state and territory counterparts, to manage holistically the spectrum of security challenges the nation faces today.

A national security adviser could assist the Prime Minister to co-ordinate a national strategy for the trifecta of security challenges and to look beyond short termism and turf protection. A freshly empowered NSA could distil the essence of the HAD, DFAT, ONI and Defence perspectives, de-conflict competing agendas and develop plans for an ambitious and bold strategy of engagement with the region, to foster security and stability with a view well beyond the remit of a single department or the next electoral cycle.

John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies and head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU. He is speaking on this topic at Tuesday’s Financial Review conference. AFR National Security Summit Tomorrow, Canberra afrnationalsecurity.com.au

This article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review

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