From ‘national intelligence community’ to ‘national intelligence power’

Australian intelligence’s foremost challenge is to further evolve from being a ‘national intelligence community’ to generating ‘national intelligence power’. It will do that by more effectively integrating intelligence into the government’s broad policymaking, strategising and action, including through adaptive and purposeful applications of intelligence in collaboration with other arms of statecraft. That’s the judgment of our submission to the independent intelligence review being undertaken by Heather Smith and Richard Maude and likely to report in mid-2024.

We make the case that while the previous review, in 2017, provided the foundation for more effective national intelligence capability, the National Intelligence Community (NIC) it created requires further adaptation—including in response to hard lessons from the past six years.

Those lessons should spur the NIC towards achieving enhanced competitiveness, sovereignty, preparedness (and utility), resilience and tech-readiness; to being sufficiently integrated and collaborative; and being able to help Australia navigate its perilous strategic circumstances. And our submission identifies that this adaptation centres on three fundamental challenges and two opportunities:

  • Challenge 1 is to find, attract and retain a capable, skilled—and sufficient—intelligence workforce.
  • Challenge 2 is to adapt to emergent and emerging technologies—and to the age of OSINT (Open Source intelligence) and data abundance.
  • Challenge 3 is to achieve ‘purposeful’ intelligence through integration into policy and operations.
  • Opportunity 1 is to become more able through partnerships.
  • Opportunity 2 is to focus on NIC Culture, innovation and ways of working.

The third challenge—integration and application—is the most confounding but also potentially the most rewarding if met successfully.

As we’ve noted elsewhere, there is still further progress to be made in integration within the NIC. But equally, if not more, important is better integration of the NIC into the broader Australian government—to achieve truly ‘intelligence-empowered’ outcomes.

This is what is meant by ‘intelligence power’ in the terms conceived by the late practitioner and scholar, Michael Herman, as a particular kind of state power—both in its historical Cold War and contemporary contexts.

To achieve this, NIC agencies need to better address the needs of their customers. This includes relieving those customers of too much low value reporting. It also means more creative approaches to product and to the classification, and hence usability, of sensitive but empowering insights.

However, this cannot be the NIC’s problem to solve alone. The rest of government needs to meet the intelligence community halfway in this collaborative initiative. Australia’s accelerating strategic circumstances require this is done with alacrity.

Intelligence agency representatives should be better incorporated into policy and planning processes. An increased openness by the NIC and better tailoring of intelligence to customer needs, along with adequate support services (such as liaison officers and dedicated contact points), should be balanced by departmental investments in systems, spaces and clearances to allow non-NIC officials to properly engage with, and utilise, intelligence advantage. That includes providing the leadership and incentives to normalise the incorporation of intelligence insights and options into the broad range of matters under consideration within government.

As to that broad range of matters, it is appropriate to again cite Philip Flood’s 2004 comprehensive accounting of intelligence functions relevant to Australia.

The ways in which intelligence can serve government are wide-ranging and fluid. Some enduring features, however, are clear. Intelligence can, in conjunction with other sources, provide:

– warning, notably of terrorist plans, but also of potential conflicts, uprisings and coups

– understanding of the regional and international environment, with which Australian decision-makers will need to grapple

– knowledge of the military capabilities and intentions of potential adversaries, a vital ingredient in defence procurement and preparedness

– support for military operations, minimising casualties and improving the environment for operational success

– support for an active and ambitious foreign, trade and defence policy. Intelligence can provide vital clues about the intentions of others (e.g. military plans) and the ambitions of adversaries (e.g. negotiating positions in political or trade disputes)

– and beyond these vital roles of intelligence in providing information, modern intelligence can be a more active tool of government—disrupting the plans of adversaries, influencing the policies of key foreign actors and contributing to modern electronic warfare.

Flood’s account remains a useful corrective to an undue focus on the ‘intelligence cycle’ alone. As useful a heuristic as it sometimes is, the intelligence cycle gives too narrow a sense of what intelligence is, or could be, including in an Australian context.

More generally, we’ve argued to the independent intelligence review that Australian intelligence needs to be supported to take a suitably long-term view and continue to move away from the short-termism that has at times characterised intelligence planning and focus over the past quarter-century. In this regard, if China is not an ultimate ‘organising principle’ then it is at the very least a focal point and capability pace-setter.