Opportunities abound: optimising our criminal intelligence system overseas

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Obtaining criminal intelligence (CrimInt) from overseas sources, and then disseminating selected assessments, are increasingly important activities for our law enforcement agencies.

This importance doesn’t stand alone: it’s driven by Australia’s exposure to the global economic and social system, our attractiveness as a market for illicit commodities and our efficient and reliable financial system. This level of international exposure is clearly reflected in the Australian Crime Commission’s (ACC) assessment that 70% of Australia’s major crime targets live or have important links overseas.

This ASPI Special Report argues that Australia’s current arrangements for gathering and disseminating CrimInt overseas are suboptimal. While additional resources are needed to address this condition, there’s also a need to streamline priority settings and associated collection requirements, provide ways to evaluate and better coordinate the collection of information and intelligence product and expand opportunities to improve training in CrimInt.

We also have opportunities to better use our CrimInt product to influence others, whether it be to influence foreign governments’ intelligence priority-setting or their investment in law enforcement capabilities.

There’s little open-source literature describing the performance of Australia’s CrimInt system overseas, so we interviewed officials from nine major Australian Government agencies involved in CrimInt as either producers or customers, representatives of three state government agencies and experts from three research institutions. We also ran a workshop involving experts on CrimInt to examine domestic priority setting. Using that data, we developed six recommendations to optimise Australia’s CrimInt efforts overseas.

While our main focus is overseas, we’ve found it necessary to consider two domestic aspects of the CrimInt system that are essential to optimising our overall effort.

The first domestically focused recommendation is for an enhanced CrimInt priority-setting mechanism that involves ministers. The new system would also involve a process to set collection requirements, task agencies, manage collection plans and dissemination, and conduct evaluations to align the CrimInt system with intelligence best practices.

On 1 July 2016, the ACC was rebadged as the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC). Its board, which could be nominated as the ‘mission manager’ for Australia’s overseas CrimInt efforts, could drive those new arrangements. That would bring all interested parties together, including the state and territory commissioners of police. Alternatively, the Heads of Commonwealth Operational Law Enforcement Agencies could play that role with support from the ACIC board.

That effort should be communicated through a whole-of-government international engagement strategy that focuses Australia’s overseas CrimInt activities. This is especially important now because four key Australian agencies are contributing to the overseas law enforcement effort and have some officers offshore.

A new Ambassador for Countering Serious and Organised Crime would manage that strategy. This new role will give greater prominence in our foreign policy to countering transnational, serious and organised crime. The Ambassador’s tasks would include examining new relationship opportunities, negotiating agreements, planning and assessing relevant aid and capacity development initiatives, and providing consistent, expert representation at international crime-fighting forums. This should be established as a three-year trial to ensure that the position delivers on the need.

New CrimInt hubs are a key recommendation. This isn’t a recommendation for a separate network: the hubs would support the AFP’s new regional managers and be led by officers with CrimInt experience. They would be the home for other law enforcement, policy and regulatory agencies that conduct CrimInt activities within a given region and would triage information and intelligence collected against the CrimInt collection requirements.

We recommend funding a trial to establish the optimal way to structure and position the CrimInt hubs. In the trial period, one hub would be located offshore (perhaps in Washington or London), one located in Australia (to cover Southeast Asia), and one formed as a ‘strike team’ to be employed in different situations around the world as needed (perhaps starting with China).

The last recommendation focuses on training and reinvigorating strategic CrimInt skills for intelligence, law enforcement and policy professionals.

We think Australia’s system overseas could be enhanced for a resource outlay of between $3.2 million and $14.6 million per year, and elements of this plan could be implemented reasonably quickly. Such moves would prove worthwhile investments in protecting the national interest from the changing criminal threats we face both now and in the future.