Australia’s intelligence reforms: lessons from the United States
28 Jul 2017|

During my recent engagement with the Australian National University’s National Security CollegeI was asked whether Australia would benefit from having a Director of National Intelligence, similar to the position I held in the United States from 2010 until January this year.

Knowing that a review of Australia’s intelligence arrangements was then wrapping up, I was a little reticent to offer gratuitous advice. Now that the Review is out there, and Prime Minister Turnbull has announced his intention to establish an Office of National Intelligence, I thought I would outline my views in a little more detail.

First, I commend Australia for its practice of conducting regular reviews of the effectiveness of its intelligence community and recommending improvements. We in the United States do not do that—our reviews are more sporadic and anecdotal. The last time we made any major change to our intelligence community, it was in response to a traumatic event—the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In comparison, changes Australia makes have not commonly been impelled by extreme circumstances.

Second, if Australia made no changes to its intelligence posture, it would still have a very competent, professional intelligence community. I have worked with the Australian intelligence community for over 30 years in many capacities, and I can attest to its maturation, sophistication, and tremendous capabilities of Australian intelligence. In the intelligence space, the United States does things with Australia that we do not do with any other ally.

Third, while there are many very thoughtful recommendations in the 2017 Review, the one I would (not surprisingly) like to focus on is the analogue to the US Director of National Intelligence.

An Australian version of this position, tailored for local circumstance, makes great sense, for essentially the same reason it makes sense in the US context. I found great strength in the integration of US capabilities across our 17 components, all but two of which reside in one of six cabinet departments.

There are many common denominators across the functions of intelligence, and many enterprise similarities. This stems from the simple but profound truism that the sum is greater than its parts—US experience shows that when the complementary capabilities of our various intelligence components are synthesized and melded, we end up with more complete intelligence products and services for our decision-makers. This applies whether that decision maker resides in the Oval Office, or, to stretch the metaphor, an oval foxhole.

Yet integration and coordination across organisational boundaries will not happen by itself. It requires a full-time champion and advocate with both internal and external constituencies.

One of the most important forms of leverage to encourage this integration is through the allocation of resources. Where is the manpower and money allocated, across the enterprise? Where should we make investments, and where should we make divestments? Moreover, I can attest, this works much better if this is done with a strategic overview, rather than on a stovepipe by stovepipe—Australians might say ‘silo by silo’—basis.

Hopefully, the director general of the Australian Office of National Intelligence will have this perspective and the authority to do something with it. It was critical to me in the US system.

Who the first DG ONI is will be hugely important because of the precedents that he or she will set for successors. If I were king, which I clearly am not, I would recommend someone steeped in intelligence, preferably having served as an agency director—knowing all the players will be key to championing integration, collaboration, coordination on a day-to-day and systematic basis.

It is worth emphasising that style counts. Furthering integration, coordination and collaboration across the Australian intelligence community will require artful persuasion and integrity, not overbearing force.

Back in 2010, just before nominating me as DNI, President Obama invited members of my family to the Oval Office. The President said to my granddaughter ‘I really appreciate your grandfather taking on the second most thankless job in this town.’

The inaugural head of the Office of National Intelligence will have thankless days ahead of them, but this is a smart reform, and we should all wish them well.