From the bookshelf: ‘Intelligence and the function of government’
7 Aug 2018|

During the 17 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Australia’s intelligence agencies have gained not only a massive boost in resources but also a corresponding prominence in public policy and the political debate. Today barely a week goes by without an intelligence-related issue making headlines. But to put those headline-grabbing stories into context, we need a body of serious publications, by historians and political scientists, think tankers, practitioners and others in and around the intelligence community, so politicians and the public can understand the issues and judge what is appropriate and what isn’t.

A new collection of essays, Intelligence and the function of government (Daniel Baldino and Rhys Crawley (eds), Melbourne University Press, 2018), is therefore welcome. It makes for both sobering and encouraging reading.

The sobering news comes from the two first chapters. The first, by Rhys Crawley and Shannon Brandt Ford, titled ‘The state of intelligence studies: Australia in international context’, demonstrates that the field is now developing in Australia, but belatedly and from a low base. As an area of serious study, the discipline of intelligence studies in Australia has lagged far behind its counterparts in the countries that have always been our two major partners, Great Britain and the United States.

The second chapter is a short history of the Australian intelligence community by John Blaxland and Crawley, who were co-authors of David Horner’s three-volume The official history of ASIO. It’s a useful overview, but the half-dozen pages covering the post-1945 period indicate how much more needs to be done to give readers a real idea of how the intelligence community has developed, where it has succeeded and where it has fallen short in the past 70 years.

The encouraging news is that this book itself is evidence that a new generation of scholars, with Baldino and Crawley among the leaders, is taking the field seriously and beginning to make some inroads.

One of the footnotes in the chapter by Blaxland and Crawley refers to the seventh report of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security in 1977, Jacqueline Templeton’s two-volume history of Australia’s intelligence and security services from 1900 to 1950. Although the report was made available to public researchers, it was never published in book form, as the royal commissioner, Justice Robert Hope, recommended at the time and for years afterwards. Even today, publishing it would provide an important foundation for scholarship in the field.

This chapter, and the book as a whole, demonstrate the need for many more detailed histories of episodes in Australia’s intelligence history. As experience here and elsewhere indicates, this can be done without prejudicing the ‘sources and methods’ that do require legitimate protection.

The importance of historical work is cited in a chapter on ‘managing reputational risk’. Andrew Brunatti, a Canadian academic, looks at the different ways in which the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand intelligence communities reacted to the massive disclosures by Edward Snowden. He draws several pertinent lessons from the comparison (conveniently summarised in dot points on pages 211–213). They include the need to protect sources and methods, but to be transparent on the operational environment.

Brunatti argues that organisational histories (like the official history of ASIO) should be published, to counter ‘the skewed perception [of the agencies] as both all-seeing behemoths and dangerous bumblers’. ‘[T]he truth’ he says, ‘is in the middle.’ The intelligence communities should encourage an external research community and rolling releases of official records. This chapter deserves to be widely read across the Australian intelligence community, by members of parliament (especially those on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security), and by journalists who take a serious interest in intelligence matters.

Much else in the book is valuable, with chapters on military intelligence by Dirk Maclean and Charles Vandepeer; open-source intelligence by Baldino and Caroline Mulligan; intelligence dissemination by Michael Wesley; financial intelligence by Ashton Robinson; intelligence cooperation in the age of counterterrorism by Siobhan Martin and Carl Ungerer; intelligence leadership and capability development by Grant Wardlaw; current trends, proportionality and metadata by Adam Henschke; cyberwarfare by Liam Nevill; and cybersecurity by Nick Ellsmore.

A collection of essays like this opens lines of inquiry and can’t be expected to cover everything. It’s worth noting that the crucial matters of oversight and accountability are touched on only incidentally in three chapters; the most extensive discussion is in Robinson’s essay on financial intelligence. This is likely to be a crucial matter in the coming years. Will the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security get the increase in resources recommended in the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review? Will the joint parliamentary committee get the greater authority that former Labor senator John Faulkner called for? Let’s hope for another collection like this before too long.