ASPI’s decades: Guarding the guardians

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

In the post-9/11 era, the oldest of questions for any republic still mattered in the capital of the Australian Commonwealth: ‘Who will guard the guardians?’

Canberra’s discussion was about securing freedom and rights while delivering safety and security.

Some of the debate was about traditional constitutional topics, such as parliament’s role in national security and controlling ministerial power. Other dimensions went to the uses and limitations of intelligence.

The guardians were reviewed and remade. A departmental federation of border and security agencies was formed.

A report on ‘creative tension’ between parliament and national security, by Anthony Bergin and Russell Trood, advocated robust checks and balances: ‘Enhancing parliament’s role in national security would reinforce Executive accountability, expand public access to policy processes, improve the quality of public debate about national security and strengthen our democratic foundations.’

The two analysts (and Trood was also a former Liberal senator) knew that ministers would remain dominant in foreign and security policy. But parliament had a growing role in overseeing intelligence and security, to move the needle in the direction of change:

Executive and ministerial resistance has often been cloaked in rhetoric about defending traditional ministerial prerogatives and the values of the Westminster system, but when change has occurred its impact on those prerogatives and values has been limited and it hasn’t significantly degraded Executive authority. But reform has changed the institutional culture of the parliament. It has legitimised parliament’s role as an increasingly important partner of the Executive in the conduct of Australia’s national security policy. There’s undoubtedly room for further expansion of this role.

In 2017, ASPI published the first edition of its annual Counterterrorism yearbook, with a preface by former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono:

It is a matter of certainty that terrorism will continue to be the key challenge to national and international security. It is extremely difficult to know when and where the next attack will occur. Each of us—no matter how distant, or how powerful, or how seemingly peaceful—can be a potential target.

The head of ASPI’s Counter-Terrorism Policy Centre, Jacinta Carroll, wrote that the core issue was the conundrum of protecting society from terrorist violence while maintaining other human rights:

CT practitioners will advise their governments to change laws, take additional security measures, and conduct operations to make the environment harder for terrorists, and also ensure that terrorists are held to account. The net result of these additional measures can, however, be restrictions on the very liberty that the terrorists are aiming to undermine.

ASPI’s analysts debated the benefits and pitfalls of sharing intelligence between the federal, state and territory governments to counter terrorism. Bergin argued that Australia needed a national security information-sharing system to combat criminal and terrorist activity:

Speeding up the current system of access for police around the country is sensible. But what’s also needed is real-time access to information from law-enforcement agencies and the intelligence community across the nation. Currently, law enforcement and intelligence agencies use separate systems to identify threats to the community.

Isaac Kfir responded with a warning about potential downsides and the need for cautious implementation and giving information context: ‘What is often missed in the conversation about intelligence sharing is that granting access also means establishing new vulnerabilities. By having a uniform platform to share intelligence, many more individuals will have access to sensitive intelligence.’

John Coyne remarked that ASPI found itself dealing with multiple layers of Australian government, from local councils to the halls of Canberra. He noted that the application of intelligence methodologies had rapidly expanded in both the private and public sectors over the past 15 years. Popular culture saw intelligence as a ‘magic bullet’ to all national security problems, he said—an idea that was more science fiction than fact. In the race to exploit the value of intelligence, the understanding of intelligence as a process and an output had been diluted, Coyne wrote:

Unsurprisingly, most intelligence professionals don’t want access to more data, but access to more of the right data at the right time. With an increasing number of analysts collating data, the task of joining the dots between disparate data points is ever more difficult. Unsurprisingly, increasing the number of data collators may not result in any tangible improvement in output or outcome.

In another piece, Coyne reflected on some truisms about ‘increasingly diversified and complex’ domestic security threats gleaned from his 25 years working in intelligence:

I am not lamenting the simple life of days gone by, nor seeking to create fear. I am reflecting on the way the consequences of cyber-attacks, terrorism and foreign influence in our day-to-day life have increased in severity and regularity. It’s hard to argue that non-state actors including terrorists, hackers and organised crime figures haven’t increased their capacity to negatively impact upon our day-to-day life. The evidence, including the normalisation of security measures, is everywhere.

Getting domestic security settings wrong could mean mass-casualty attacks, lost economic opportunities, poor policy decisions, even rigged elections. Coyne offered two linked conclusions: ‘we have to accept that we are not as safe at home as we once were’ and there was less trust in government.

Those seeking resources and powers for national security, he wrote, also had to offer more transparency and accountability—pointing to a big new Canberra creation, the Department of Home Affairs.

In July 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced ‘the most significant reform of Australia’s national intelligence and domestic security arrangements in more than 40 years’.

The intelligence changes were based on the recommendations of an independent review: transform the Office of National Assessments into the Office of National Intelligence, headed by a director-general of national intelligence, and make the Australian Signals Directorate into a statutory agency within the Defence portfolio.

The revolution in the domestic security structure, however, wasn’t one considered or recommended by the review. It was all the prime minister’s own work—the creation of a Home Affairs portfolio to cover immigration, border protection, and domestic security and law enforcement agencies.

In his memoir, Turnbull has a chapter titled ‘Matters of trust: reforming intelligence and home affairs’ that offers a dusting of policy intent and much discussion of the politics and personalities involved. For Turnbull, the ‘trust’ issue was as much about his cabinet colleagues as rearranging the security guardians. Despite the ‘horrified’ reaction of the agencies moving into the mega-portfolio, Turnbull writes, and the political danger of giving Peter Dutton ‘a position of enormous responsibility’ as the first minister, Home Affairs was born.

The policy purpose was set out in Turnbull’s announcement:

The new Home Affairs portfolio will be similar to the Home Office of the United Kingdom: a central department providing strategic planning, coordination and other support to a ‘federation’ of independent security and law enforcement agencies including the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Border Force and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission. These arrangements will preserve the operational focus and strengths of frontline agencies engaged in the fight against terrorism, organised crime and other domestic threats.

The bureaucracy was then given 12 months to put Home Affairs together.

This was a blank canvas with many tints on the palette, Bergin and Derek Woolner thought, and the picture in prospect looked much like the department of homeland security they’d long advocated. A senior member of cabinet would now give 100% of their time to the domestic aspects of national security. The reorganisation of all those functions into a single portfolio—a ‘federation’ of border and security agencies—was long overdue, Bergin and Woolner wrote, but:

The difficulty will be developing the structure and governance arrangements for the Home Affairs portfolio: in particular, improving the response to terrorism that Prime Minister Turnbull thinks isn’t adequately provided by current ‘ad hoc and incremental adjustments’ to our national security arrangements.

By contrast, Peter Jennings welcomed Home Affairs with faint praise and firm damns:

The most important point to make about the government’s proposed Home Affairs portfolio is that these new arrangements can be made to work. They will not harm our counterterrorism performance and could improve Australia’s underwhelming efforts to protect against foreign interference and strengthen the security of critical infrastructure. But … it’s surprising that so little groundwork had been done to justify the need for change or to say how it was going to be done.

Coyne commented that ‘the creation of the portfolio will expose difficult-to-fix cultural and philosophical differences between agencies that have, to date, been ameliorated by the goodwill and leadership of individuals’.

One of the authors of the intelligence review, Michael L’Estrange, did a series of video interviews with ASPI on the intelligence community, the impact of fundamental changes in the international system, extremism with global reach, and the security consequences of accelerating technological change. The director-general of intelligence as the new czar who would need a ‘light touch’ to deal with the ‘federated structure’ of the community and its expansion to embrace the collectors and analysts, cops and lawyers, spooks and spies, cyber nerds and cyber warriors, diplomats and accountants, mappers and managers.

L’Estrange said Home Affairs wasn’t part of the review’s recommendations, but that it followed the review’s logic. If Home Affairs were still just an idea, he noted, the Canberra arguments would be intense. But Home Affairs was a government decision that had been made, and the new department must be made to happen.