The role of intelligence in Australian statecraft
21 Apr 2023|

As Melissa Conley-Tyler and Benjamin Day have noted, ‘statecraft’ is increasingly the term of art when it comes to Australian policymaking—and, as Will Leben has observed, a welcome one.

The increasing focus on statecraft in an Australian context has prompted ASPI to establish a program to ensure intelligence’s role within it is better understood.

In 2020 then prime minister Scott Morrison boldly declared that Australia would use ‘all elements of statecraft to shape the world we want to see’.

As shadow minister, Penny Wong suggested Morrison’s government ‘neglected some of the drivers of statecraft, some of the capability that’s required to navigate what is a much more challenging and risky world’. By contrast Labor would ‘bring all the aspects of our statecraft together to protect and advance our interests’. As Minister for Foreign Affairs she has described—in a speech in which she used ‘statecraft’ seven times—how Australia’s strategic circumstances require ‘unprecedented coordination and ambition in our statecraft’ and that this statecraft is composed of: ‘Our economic security, our domestic resilience as a multicultural democracy and our international engagement’.

Last year defence minister Richard Marles cited statecraft thrice in one speech, concluding that ‘statecraft is only viable if it is underpinned by the ability to project force and power: to deter military threats, and defend Australia’s national interests within our immediate region.’ At this year’s Avalon air show he told an industry dinner ‘it has never been more important for Australia to employ sober, responsible and clear-eyed statecraft’.

While ‘statecraft’ might be back in the political lexicon, analysis of its use in Australia reveals its various meanings. Although sometimes describing specific policy actions (as in coercive economic statecraft), two uses are more common. First, innate judgments and actions by governments or individuals, ‘sound statecraft’ for example. Second, the integration of powers and capabilities into a single, coherent, conscious and integrated approach to Australia in the world. This second usage is most relevant, with certain components of (Australian) national power readily identified. As the MP for Wills, Peter Khalil, succinctly described them: ‘the three Ds of statecraft—nuanced diplomacy; development assistance; and defence’.

It’s here that we need to talk about spies, more precisely about the role of intelligence in Australian statecraft, why it’s relatively unheralded, and why it’s worth examination and discussion.

The government and its agencies have explicitly linked the concept of statecraft and the work of intelligence.

At its 75th anniversary last year the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) was described by the then government as ‘one of the most important arms of Australian statecraft’, with then assistant minister Andrew Hastie adding that ‘secrets of Australian statecraft … have been shielded from public view, as ASD operated in the shadows alongside cousins like ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) and ASIS (Australian Secret Intelligence Service)’.

The other agency with a significant birthday in 2022 was indeed ASIS whose then Director-General, Paul Symon, was plain about its role and associated challenges:

‘While [human intelligence work] remains a core component of statecraft, it must adapt to meet the extraordinary challenges arising from the interaction of a complex strategic environment, intensified counter-intelligence efforts, and emergent and emerging technologies.’

This significance of intelligence to Australian statecraft shouldn’t be surprising. As Danielle Cave writes: ‘For as long as—and perhaps even longer than—there have been states, there have been spies’. The principal institutions of Australian intelligence date to WWII’s aftermath, or to the first Hope Royal Commission almost 50 years ago, as well as an important pre-history. But the intelligence community’s contribution remains under-examined, and lately National Intelligence Community (NIC) leaders have been increasingly open about the need to be—albeit prudently—more open.

This reflects practical pressures on the NIC, especially the need to grow and transform, a challenge shared with Defence and acknowledged by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the National Press Club. To appreciate the scale of that task, consider that ASD’s Project REDSPICE is a $9.9 billion initiative over 10 years, involving more than 1900 new personnel. For any organisation this would be daunting—for agencies with very particular security and skills needs it’s truly extraordinary. And that’s just one agency in a community of 10!

It’s not just this imperative that makes a more informed discourse on Australian intelligence valuable to government, agencies and public alike. Initiatives like REDSPICE are building off historically significant growth in NIC resources and responsibilities, tracing back to the turn of the century. From what was a curiosity (and an endangered one at that) in the post-Cold War 1990s, for over two decades Australian intelligence has been on a constant cycle of high tempo operations.

For example, as the then Government noted in 2018, ‘successive governments have asked ASIS to do more in response to national security priorities and unfolding events, and to do so in new places and new circumstances unforeseen in 2001 or in 2004’. ASIO and the AFP, with the rest of the NIC, have assiduously pursued the counter-terrorism mission and disrupted numerous threats.

There’s much to be gained from reflection on those past experiences, and the organisational and methodological lessons for now emergent and emerging national security challenges, especially how collaboration across historical silos—technical and human, foreign and domestic—has served outcomes while preserving first principles enshrined since the 1970s.

There’s also acknowledgement that a more robust social licence for Australian intelligence, by way of a better-informed public, is a force multiplier and hedge against future vulnerabilities.

ASIO director-general Mike Burgess has summed this up as the ‘triple T’s of Threat, Trust and Team’. Burgess said he wanted to ‘improve awareness of threats, enhance trust through transparency and build our team by recruiting the best and brightest.’ ASD director-general Rachel Noble has noted that to  protect knowledge of operational methods and capabilities: ‘The how must necessarily be kept a secret’.

ASPI’s Statecraft and Intelligence Program aims to improve public knowledge of, and discourse on, intelligence matters (including through demystification and myth-busting); improve outcomes for the NIC and by extension Australian interests, and in turn ask more of the NIC itself, while equipping informed policymakers to collaborate with intelligence counterparts more effectively.

The program’s linkage of intelligence with statecraft is deliberate. It situates intelligence within a purposeful policy context and helps move past espionage as entertainment or cliche. Furthermore, this approach expands the notion of intelligence beyond readier assumptions of counterterrorism and conduct of defence to the full range of Australia’s levers and activities in the world. That’s critical given the wrenching changes taking place in our strategic environment.

This isn’t wholly new territory for ASPI. In addition to ongoing and invaluable contributions made in analysing cyberespionage, information operations and disinformation, law enforcement and counterterrorism, to mention just a few, ASPI has contributed to past intelligence reviews and identified important lessons from international experience. Of note was 2021’s Collaborative and Agile report on intelligence community collaboration insights from the UK and US.

Using unclassified resources (and leveraging historical case-studies and international comparisons), the ASPI program will canvass the challenges facing Australian intelligence—cultural, organisational, technological and strategic—as well as intelligence’s place within liberal democracy, and the integration of intelligence capabilities into national strategy and effects.

Importantly the program will also examine the finite limits of intelligence and its utility to statecraft. For, as Symon told ASPI in 2020: ‘We’re not the silver bullet, and we don’t pretend to be the silver bullet.’