Australia’s next intelligence review must learn from the past

Independent reviews of Australia’s intelligence community are undertaken every five to seven years—a schedule set by 2004’s post–Iraq war Flood report, which replaced reactive post-mortems with proactive check-ups. July will mark six years since the release of the report of the 2017 independent intelligence review, led by Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant. With funding allocated for another iteration in May’s federal budget, the government will likely announce the next review shortly. That review should learn from, and build on, L’Estrange and Merchant’s work.

A review isn’t just due, it’s timely. The strategic context for Australian intelligence is shifting rapidly. International power politics is heating up and intelligence will be a key tool for government in navigating those choppy waters and achieving the goal of national defence described in the defence strategic review.

A general once-over that simply confirms business as usual will be insufficient. The upcoming review will need to grapple with some revolutionary changes already happening in the intelligence world, as well as those on the horizon. Foremost among them will be technological game-changers, such as generative artificial intelligence and the enormous growth in open-source intelligence opportunities.

As a starting point for the next review, ASPI’s statecraft and intelligence program has taken a deep dive into the 2017 review. In a new report, released today, I examine the review’s implementation and the relevance of its assessments and recommendations. This includes considering the impact of the establishment of the Home Affairs portfolio in July 2017 and other developments. The report offers some lessons learned that can inform the terms of reference, approach and focus of the next review.

The 2017 review’s 23 recommendations have had far-reaching consequences for the national intelligence community. The Office of National Intelligence was established to lead enterprise management in addition to all-source analysis, with its director-general serving as community head and principal intelligence adviser to the prime minister. A joint capability fund and intelligence capability investment plan were instituted to underpin integrated capability development. The Australian Signals Directorate was given statutory independence from the Defence Department. A comprehensive review of national security legislation was undertaken in late 2020. The review also recommended expanding the roles of the Office of Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, though that has yet to be implemented in full.

More fundamentally, the 2017 review reconfigured Australian intelligence into a 10-agency-strong national intelligence community by incorporating AUSTRAC (the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre), the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and the intelligence components of the Australian Federal Police and the new Department of Home Affairs. This reconceptualisation promised a truly national enterprise bringing together all the elements of intelligence—security, foreign, law enforcement and border protection. Achieving this ideal of integration remains a work in progress.

By examining the 2017 review, I’ve identified three broad topics central to the future of Australian intelligence. These are the areas in which the next review can most profitably ground its work. First is attracting, building and retaining a skilled workforce—an existential-level challenge. Second is adapting to rapid and profound technological change. And the third is leveraging more and closer partnerships across agency boundaries, Australian society and internationally.

The report highlights how the past six years have raised important and challenging questions and identifies opportunities to further advance the intelligence community’s performance. It also makes specific recommendations to inform planning and preparation for the new review.

The next review’s strategic context should be aligned with the defence strategic review’s assessments on accelerating strategic circumstances and planning timeframes. It should also consider carefully the relative decline of counterterrorism as an intelligence priority and the increasing centrality of China to intelligence planning, and whether those developments necessitate changes to the model initiated in 2017.

The terms of reference for the next review should not pre-emptively constrain its consideration of future investment in intelligence capabilities. The reviewers should be free to identify resourcing requirements within the bounds of fiscal realism, but also on the merits and without undue limitation, noting that the final decisions are always on the government, where they belong.

In the same vein, the review needs to consider the ‘return of the portfolio’. Integration of the intelligence agencies has been constrained by stubbornly entrenched portfolio- and agency-based capability development and funding. The review should consider how to achieve a more comprehensive, efficient and joined-up approach in the spirit of its 2017 predecessor. This needs to include making good on the original promises of a joint capability fund and intelligence capability investment plan.

The 2004 and 2017 reviews both produced substantive and substantial public reports in addition to their classified reports. The forthcoming review should do the same, including making public recommendations, replicating the open approach to public dialogue and explanation offered by L’Estrange and Merchant. Given strategic developments since 2017, future reporting should include a suitable level of candour with the public about the intelligence challenges posed to Australia by China’s rise.

I join with other commentators in recommending that least one of the principal reviewers appointed be female, which would be a first for an Australian intelligence review. Also, when considering prospective reviewers, the government should heed the past and ensure that at least one reviewer has detailed knowledge of, and first-hand experience in, Australian intelligence.

Finally, the great worth of the 2017 review has been obscured by the absence of comprehensive public accounting of the implementation of its recommendations. While there will always be elements of implementation that must remain classified, failure to communicate with the public over the past six years has been disappointing and has limited accountability when it comes to delivery. This time around, the reviewers should be tasked with delivering a public follow-up evaluation of implementation 18 to 24 months after the review’s release.