The internal operations and habits of Canberra’s national security and intelligence departments have altered dramatically over the past four decades. The machinery went from manual to electric typewriters, and now from Microsoft into the Cloud. Smoking fell while women rose. The internal remaking of departments is mild when compared with the way the world beyond Canberra has shifted (breaking news: colonialism expired, as did communism.). But when it comes to the actual departments—names and roles—the rigidity is remarkable.
As my previous column remarked, Canberra’s institutional structure is little changed over 30 to 40 years. What Arthur Tange did to Defence in the 1970s and Justice Hope did to the intelligence community in his two Royal Commission reports in 1974–77 and 1984 remain the default settings.
The existing beasts have certainly evolved, but none have departed the jungle and new creatures are rare. Like the National Security Adviser before it, the Cyber Security Centre announced by the Prime Minister in her National Security Strategy should one day grow to have a distinct role in the jungle. For the next few years, however, the Centre will be an act of creation, with an identity to be formed by the struggle (tug-of-war, even) involved in getting the best out of the vastly different cultures and world views of the Defence Signals Directorate and the Attorney-General’s Department.
It’s theoretically possible for nerds, lawyers and cops to communicate, even co-exist, but co-habitation? Julia Gillard’s injunction about silo-busting will get an extended workout. History says the lawyers and the cops shouldn’t be too sanguine about lording it over the nerds. The Air Force thought it should own the new cyber domain, but in that previous bureaucratic dogfight it was outflown by DSD.
That episode illustrates the point that the creatures of the jungle grow and evolve and shape-shift, but seldom die, much less change their names. And any new function is fought over by the existing animals, to be adopted or adapted by them rather than find an independent existence. The rigidity of the defence and intelligence systems has been reinforced by the centrifugal force exerted by Canberra. Here is a quick primer from Allan Behm (PDF) on how some of the important beasts found themselves transplanted from Melbourne to the national capital:
Against the will of almost all its staff members, ASIO was removed from Melbourne to Canberra in the mid-80s by the then Director-General Alan Wrigley, one of the hard men from Defence. The reason for ASIO’s translation to Canberra was simple: ASIO had to be brought under the control of the government, reined in, and made accountable for its budget and its actions. Similarly, against the will of its staff, ASIS was removed from its quaint Avengers type accommodation in Victoria Barracks, Melbourne, to Canberra so that it came more squarely under the control of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. So, too, was DSD removed from its almost brand new purpose built facilities at Victoria Barracks to Canberra, so that it would be under the control of Defence and subject to more rigorous accountability procedures.
One good thing about moving to Canberra was the one-off opportunity for these agencies to leave their dinosaurs behind in Melbourne, along with some less than helpful habits of mind.
The geographical working of the Canberra effect has evolved to such a point that if a beast really wants to be a lord of a jungle, its HQ must be in sight of the Parliament House flag (recent examples being the AFP’s shift from Civic to Kings Avenue, ONA’S new building also in Kings Avenue, and ASIO’s vast construction across the lake).
The head of ONA, Allan Gyngell, has mused that the Canberra intelligence community, despite some elaboration and modification, ‘hasn’t fundamentally changed since the late 1970s.’ He credits much of this longevity to the design work, both liberal and robust, of Justice Hope, especially the separation of functions between analytical and collection agencies. Gyngell’s speech is worth a read just for his account of a marvellous moment in a meeting between Hope and a famous US senator who mixed plenty of baroque elements into his renaissance-man-persona:
As ONA liaison officer in Washington in the early 1980s I had brief contact with [Justice Hope] when he visited for discussion with US intelligence and government officials. His personal warmth, modesty and deep intelligence left a lasting impression. His program included a memorable call on Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Hope asked Moynihan about the Reagan Administration’s covert action campaign against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Moynihan drew himself up. ‘Covert?’ he cried, jowls quivering, ‘Covert? It’s about as covert as an act of mass sodomy on the New York transit system.
Mark that as an intelligent assessment, as against an intelligence assessment. If this Moynihan yarn has a larger moral, it’s probably that no secret stays secret forever, no matter how much it might suit the intelligence community. And in the world of Wikileaks, such leakage can come as a torrent.
Canberra’s rigidity issues are well covered in Carl Ungerer’s ASPI report a few years ago on the need for renewal and reform:
The national security institutions that were designed to respond to the relatively predictable patterns of the Cold War now seem slow and cumbersome in the face of these new security challenges. Large departments of state are often inward looking and fail to adapt quickly to changes in the external security environment. In particular, the institutional lines of responsibility which continue to define hard barriers between foreign and domestic security policy appear anachronistic.
All true. But the iron law of bureaucracy decrees that what you have, you hold. And just as importantly, that law gets magnified when it shifts to the political realm. Ministers never give up power without a fight: change is great, but only if it enhances the empire. Those laws or bureaucracy and politics explain why Canberra’s big beasts seldom get culled.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Julia Koefender.