Editors’ picks for 2016: ‘Reviewing intelligence: send in the red team’
26 Dec 2016|

Originally published 6 October.

By all accounts, there’s to be another review of Australia’s intelligence agencies in the near future. The ‘major independent review’ will be the third in 15 years and it’s variously reported that the focus will be on cyber threats or the balance between short-term operational counter-terrorism and long-term strategic intelligence or, well, pretty much everything.

I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for a dramatic change to the way Australia’s intelligence agencies are structured. The last couple of major reviews have been disappointing, seemingly more about keeping the status quo and minimising criticism than seriously examining the roles and functioning of the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC). They failed to deliver for quite different reasons, but taken together they show the inherent difficulty in getting to grips with the prickly questions confronting intelligence agencies and the polity they support.

Let’s start with the easier of the two to dissect. The 2011 Independent Review of the Intelligence Community Report (PDF), conducted by intelligence outsiders Rufus Black and Robert Cornall, said essentially nothing. Graeme Dobell bluntly described it as a ‘eunuch report, bowdlerised to the point of banality’. Graeme was right to note that it contained no serious discussion of the question of contestability that was at the heart of the 2004 Report of the inquiry into Australian intelligence agencies conducted by Phillip Flood, a former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments (ONA).

While it’s true that it tackled some of the big issues, including the all-important subject of contestability, the Flood report isn’t beyond reproach either. After all, it followed the biggest intelligence and strategic policy failure of recent times—the invasion of Iraq based on fears of active Iraqi WMD programs. Yet the net result was to recommend more money for the AIC, as well as some organisational changes that (in my view) made contestability less effective.

Flood concluded that the AIC (and its international partners) drew the most likely conclusions from the data at hand

‘… and generally presented them with appropriate qualification. The obverse conclusion—that Iraq did not have WMD aspirations and capability—would have been a much more difficult conclusion to substantiate’.

In fact, a critical reading of the available material shows that the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) was substantially less wrong than ONA, especially in the crucial period immediately before the 2003 war. A 2004 Parliamentary Committee report (PDF) notes that ‘the detailed reports from DIO after the middle of September 2002 remain more sceptical and circumspect than those of ONA in the same period’. (para 2.29) That key difference between the two agencies should’ve been reason enough to give pause regarding the reliability of the assessments. But the Flood recommendations reduced the overlap of responsibilities between the two organisations, making it harder for divergences of views to be observed—the opposite of improved contestability.

So we have reviews carried out by a deep intelligence insider on one hand, and a couple of outsiders on another. Neither of them produced large scale changes, and neither of them served the wider polity particularly well, though the AIC was probably happy enough with both. But it begs the question as to how the government should approach a review of intelligence. If there was suspected widespread misbehavior and lack of accountability, it’d be easy enough—not just one but two Hope Royal Commissions certainly can’t be faulted for having no impact on the AIC. But they produced a robust set of effective oversight mechanisms, and there’s no sense of moral turpitude creeping back into the AIC, so there’s no need to repeat that exercise.

I think there’s a substantial case to be made that some lateral thinking about intelligence is required today. The 24/7 news cycle and the breadth and depth of information available to everyone means that intelligence agencies more than ever are competing for attention and influence. But secrets are still important for some questions, and the ability to blend them with information distilled from huge open-source datasets and produce rigorous assessments is at the heart of modern intelligence. It’s a quite different world than the AIC of the Hope years.

Alan Gyngell, another ex-ONA Director-General, is the tip for this review. He brings vast experience to bear and is a thinker—I get my graduate students in intelligence at ANU to read Gyngell’s thoughtful 2011 speech on the future of intelligence. But it’s hard for someone who has lived the work to step back and suggest hard changes or to identify flaws in well-entrenched practices. On the other hand, as the Black–Cornall report showed, it’s such an arcane business that outsiders have little chance of really getting to grips with profound structural changes.

The best answer might be to borrow a technique that’s sometimes useful in intelligence practice and set up a ‘Red Team’ to conduct the review, with a brief to come in and challenge the status quo. By putting together a team, you could include a former insider, as well as smart outsiders (including, I’d suggest, someone from the cutting edge of information analytics). The danger, of course, is that it’d turn into ‘review by committee’, and come down to a common denominator view that changes little. But that’s what we got the last two times anyway, so let’s give it a shot.