Intelligence chiefs’ international visits highlight a useful tool of Australian statecraft

You didn’t read about it in the Australian media, but back in August the directors-general of the Office of National Intelligence, Andrew Shearer, and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Kerri Hartland, met Timor-Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao in Dili.

According to a brief recap released by the Timor-Leste government, they discussed ‘various security-related matters, covering national and regional issues’. In addition, Gusmao ‘highlighted the importance of maintaining close collaboration with Australia to address common challenges in regional security and expressed his gratitude for Australian support in strengthening security and intelligence institutional capacity’.

Shearer and Hartland then accompanied a delegation from the Australian parliament’s intelligence and security committee to meet with members of the New Zealand government, including the defence minister, and the opposition leader.

Two weeks later, Shearer was in Vietnam, where he met with public security minister and politburo member To Lam, as well as Ministry of Foreign Affairs Vice Minister Do Hung Viet.

This is ‘intelligence diplomacy’ in action—using intelligence actors and relationships to conduct, or substantially facilitate, diplomatic relations. Indeed, intelligence diplomacy is a potent tool of statecraft that’s useful in specific circumstances to either enhance conventional diplomacy or create subtler lines of communication. A new report from ASPI’s statecraft and intelligence program, released today, focuses on intelligence diplomacy and its increasing utility and potential hazards.

In recent years, Australia’s intelligence chiefs have spoken in general terms about the strategic value of intelligence diplomacy. Interviewed in 2020, Paul Symon, then the director-general of ASIS, described ‘a role for intelligence diplomacy’, noting, ‘Sometimes messages are better delivered by intelligence chiefs rather than diplomats.’

Australia is not unique in pursuing intelligence diplomacy. In July 2023, CIA Director Bill Burns confirmed that he had ‘sought to quietly strengthen intelligence channels with China, including through my own travels’. And Burns’s efforts haven’t been confined to the Indo-Pacific. In November 2022 he met his Russian counterpart, Foreign Intelligence Service Director Sergei Naryshkin, to warn of possible consequences of the use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war. A year earlier, he had made an unsuccessful attempt to dissuade Russia from an invasion of Ukraine, including in a discussion joined by President Vladimir Putin. Burns has since acknowledged his broader role in engaging with undesirable interlocutors—including the Taliban—on behalf of the US government.

Governments turn to intelligence diplomacy when the nature of the interlocutor, the relationship, the matter in question, the moment and/or the broader political context—and, critically, those governments’ assessments of the related capabilities and effectiveness of their intelligence services—makes use of intelligence actors or relationships attractive and advantageous.

The often secretive nature of intelligence diplomacy makes assessing its value in the conduct of statecraft challenging—but in an Australian context we can see clear hits and misses. Nick Warner’s visit to Honiara in 2017, as ASIS director-general, preceded the Solomon Islands government’s decision to sign on to joint development with Australia of an underwater telecommunications cable, in lieu of a previously agreed Chinese proposal. But a joint visit to the same capital in April 2022 by Symon and Shearer didn’t stop the signing of a security agreement with Beijing. More positively, Warner’s engagement with the Iranian government, as ONI director-general, helped secure the release of Australian prisoner Kylie Moore-Gilbert in 2020.

The Indo-Pacific is the centre of Australian intelligence diplomacy efforts, as evident from these recent visits, as well as Warner’s meeting with the Philippines president in August 2017 and Symon’s meeting with the Solomon Islands prime minister in 2018. Indeed, earlier this year Shearer spoke publicly about how intelligence diplomacy served to progress Australian interests regionally, and specifically cited close intelligence links to Japan and India.

Intelligence diplomacy is an important complement to other, more typical forms of diplomacy and to broader intelligence work, but it is not a substitute. Use of intelligence actors and relationships can extend the reach of diplomatic engagement into circumstances that might otherwise be impossible. However, the Solomon Islands undersea cable case demonstrates just how much an outcome can hinge on deployment of a broad range of tools—including policy initiatives and resources.

Nonetheless, intelligence diplomacy is subject to the same limitations applying to other ‘back channels’. Early breakthroughs risk becoming substitutes for real, substantive negotiations, and secret agreements, no matter how successful, must find some overt form to be implemented. This implementation dilemma can result in breakthroughs that yield diminishing—and eventually negative—returns.

Governments should use intelligence diplomacy selectively and purposefully, in concert and collaboration with other arms of policy, and with robust, agreed policy objectives and parameters. Burns underscored this point when he described his engagement with the Chinese as ‘an important means of ensuring against unnecessary misunderstandings and inadvertent collisions, and complementing and supporting policymaking channels, such as Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken’s recent visit to Beijing’.

Governments should also be careful not to fall into using intelligence diplomacy by habit or for reasons of self-interest (either on their part or their agencies’ part). And they should be wary of overuse, for the effective utility of intelligence diplomacy depends in part on prudent and selective application.

For intelligence agencies themselves, there’s value in appreciating that intelligence diplomacy is an important part of the contribution they can make to national outcomes. They should therefore make appropriate investments in related enabling capabilities, including lessons learned, formal training for relevant staff, and exercising.

For politicians, policymakers and the interested public, understanding the important role intelligence diplomacy can play in international relations provides a fuller sense of what it is that intelligence agencies actually do in their names.