Scoping out the 2024 intelligence review

‘Our intelligence agencies underpin our national security objectives, including helping to safeguard our sovereignty in an increasingly uncertain security environment. This Independent Review will make sure that our intelligence agencies are best positioned to serve the Australian national interest, respond to future capability and workforce challenges, and continue to protect our security, prosperity and values.’

With those words, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese launched the fourth major review of Australian intelligence this century.

Former departmental secretary Heather Smith and former Office of National Assessments director-general Richard Maude will lead the review of the national intelligence community, which is expected to report in mid-2024. The review’s terms of reference were announced in September, and a call was put out for invitation for public submissions, which are due by 24 November.

What will the review examine? ASPI’s statecraft and intelligence program offered some ideas earlier this year, identifying as broad priorities attracting, building and retaining a skilled workforce; adapting to rapid and profound technological change; and leveraging more, and closer, partnerships.

As it is, the publicly released terms of reference are enlightening—for what they include and how, and indeed what they don’t include.

Acknowledging that the review has an all-encompassing mandate to ‘prepare findings and recommendations on the NIC’ [emphasis added], like previous reviews it is nonetheless charged with focusing on several ‘related issues’.

Of the three broad themes identified in ASPI’s earlier research, only one gets a guernsey now: the intelligence workforce. Remarkably, technology isn’t mentioned at all. Partnerships might be there, but only implicitly. What’s more, there’s no reference to collaboration or innovation. Nor do the terms of reference engage directly with other salient issues, such as the specific question of whether the concept of an expanded NIC is undermined or reinforced by Australia’s accelerating strategic circumstances. However, the reviewers are asked to look at how ‘the NIC serves, and is positioned to serve, national interests and the needs of government, including in response to the recommendations of recent reviews relevant to defence and security, and the evolving security environment’.

Delving into what is included, it’s readily apparent that little argument is envisaged about the relative merits of the establishment of the Office of National Intelligence in 2018. The terms of reference go out of their way to specify consideration of the outcomes of the 2017 review, such as the ‘expansion to create the NIC’ and the ‘effectiveness and outcomes of the Joint Capability Fund’—but only ‘the benefits [emphasis added] of the establishment of [ONI]’ are within scope.

Acknowledgement of the significant investments made in agencies since 2017 (unsaid, but most notably the Australian Signals Directorate, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service) is important. These circumstances distinguish this review from its predecessors (which more typically served as catalysts for investment) and require a different kind of approach, signalled by the intention to examine project ‘status, risks and potential mitigations’.

Workforce is identified as the principal capability focus, and the terms of reference indicate that the review intends to cut to the chase by asking about options if ‘foreshadowed recruitment targets cannot be met’.

The NIC’s preparedness for conflict is also mentioned. Hopefully that will be intepreted broadly enough to include how national intelligence capabilities can best support deterrence (and ‘national defence’) as set out in the 2023 defence strategic review.

Somewhat oddly, the penultimate topic highlighted calls out the NIC’s use of the classification system. This might be a case of viewing a real, fundamental but unacknowledged challenge—that is, how to better integrate intelligence capabilities and outcomes into Australian policymaking—through the keyhole of a minister’s or secretary’s particularly grumpy morning. Or it could, confusedly, mean something else entirely.

What about what’s missing? As noted, the most striking absence is technology and the global data revolution. There’s no reference to data or the abundance of open-source intelligence (or to whether institutional changes within intelligence communities might be required to undertake OSINT). Nor is there any reference to disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, quantum, bioengineering or any other technology identified in the seminal US ‘intelligence edge’ project or—closer to home—to the interplay between secrecy, sovereignty and sharing resulting from profound technological shifts.

There’s also no reference to integration or collaboration within the NIC except by way of examining implementation of the 2017 recommendations. Hopefully that doesn’t preclude an examination of potential efficiency initiatives like shared services between operationally sensitive agencies, taking a leaf out of the UK’s Single Intelligence Account.

Disappointingly, but understandably, the terms of reference stay well within the lane markings of the NIC. There’s no going near the vexed issue of national-security policymaking or the enduring dead hand of portfolio when it comes to capability development and national decision-making. There’s an enduring missing middle in the space between the review of the NIC and the defence strategic review.

Less understandably, there’s no reference to learning lessons from the past. It may have disappeared into a memory hole amid the polycrisis, but only two years ago Australia exited ignominiously its 20-year commitment in Afghanistan. Nor is there any reference to lessons from the Russia–Ukraine war, or to new or revived uses of intelligence like ‘strategic downgrades’, although that could be what the penultimate term of reference is trying to get to in rather a tortured fashion. Nor is there any mention of strategic warning, the utility of net assessment or intelligence diplomacy. There’s also no reference to the unique grey-zone asks of intelligence or the heightening intelligence contest internationally.

Finally, it goes without saying that there’s no overt reference to the most significant factor facing the NIC: China. Repeating our suggestion from June, we hope this absence is rectified in the review’s public report.

Not all projectiles need be brickbats. Bouquets are due too. Some absences are welcome. There’s no agonising over justifying intelligence itself, even in an open-source world. And it’s excellent news that the review isn’t constrained by unnecessarily prejudicial fiscal limits inherent in the instructions provided to the reviewers in 2011 and to a lesser extent in 2017. Instead, the reviewers can tackle capability questions forthrightly and leave budget decisions where they belong—with government.

Nevertheless, all of the issues we’ve identified as absent can still reasonably be drawn in under the banner of reviewing ‘the NIC’. So too might other big-picture challenges not specified in the terms of reference, including Australian intelligence’s potential roles in addressing future pandemics and catastrophic risks.

In that regard we’re confident, and hopeful, that the reviewers will flesh out the terms of reference into a deeper, more joined-up account of Australian intelligence and its future—to the ultimate benefit of the NIC and all Australians.