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The intelligence review: our Hope for years to come

Posted By on July 26, 2017 @ 06:00

Peter Jennings accurately described the contrast between two examples of structural policymaking last week, the announcement of the new Home Affairs portfolio and the release of the unclassified version of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review. Jennings was also right to argue that discussion and implementation of the review should not be submerged beneath the tumult over the incorporation of responsibility for ASIO and the AFP, along with immigration and border protection, under the Home Affairs umbrella.

Much of the review’s value arises from the authors’ deep knowledge of the history of reform of the Australian intelligence agencies.  Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant place their analysis and recommendations into the context of the two royal commissions conducted by Justice Robert Hope in the 1970s and 1980s, which gave the Australian intelligence community the shape it has had for the past 40 years. They are well equipped to do so. L’Estrange was a researcher for the second Hope royal commission and was greatly impressed by Hope’s intellectual and personal qualities. He has held a number of posts, including secretary of DFAT and Cabinet secretary, which have enabled him to observe the agencies at close quarters. Merchant has held a number of senior posts in several of the agencies shaped by Hope. They are two experienced insiders, building on the work of a remarkably effective outsider.

L’Estrange and Merchant take as their baseline the Hope royal commissions’ definitions of the roles and responsibilities of the intelligence agencies, the oversight and accountability mechanisms under which they should operate, and the operational principles they should observe. After examining the current security environment, they express their recommendations as extensions, amendments or revisions of the structures and principles developed by Hope.

The central concern of Hope’s 16 major reports—striking the right balance between national security and civil liberties—remains fundamental, but L’Estrange and Merchant argue that some of the other crucial distinctions he made—‘between intelligence collection and assessment, between human intelligence and signals intelligence, between intelligence assessments and policy determination, and between security intelligence and law enforcement’ (paragraph 2.17)—can no longer be applied as rigidly as Hope did. By being so frank, they provide an intellectually robust framework within which to discuss their recommendations.

The review’s two most important recommendations are logical and timely extensions of Hope’s work. The first is the expansion of the Office of National Assessments (ONA) into the Office of National Intelligence (ONI).  The creation of ONA was probably Hope’s single greatest innovation. He saw the need for greater coordination between agencies that had too often been divided by geographical distance and institutional rivalries. Hope envisioned a central agency, devoted solely to assessment—unlike the US Central Intelligence Agency, which combines assessment, collection and special operations. By no coincidence, ONA’s new headquarters in 2011 was named the Robert Marsden Hope Building.

The review tackles, firmly but tactfully, the false expectations that some have entertained over ONA’s role and sets out clear reasons why it should be developed into an ONI, along the lines of the coordinating bodies in Australia’s Five Eyes partners.

Turning ONA into ONI has potential risks as well as likely benefits. L’Estrange and Merchant emphasise the importance of preserving the independence of intelligence assessments, while also saying that assessments must be timely and relevant to policymakers. Both statements are right, but getting the balance between relevance and independence will be no easy matter. Similarly, there is potential tension between two stated aims, greater coordination and greater contestability. How can we ensure that assessments are contested, without descending into interagency rivalry (like the notorious FBI–CIA antagonism before 9/11), and that the agencies are coordinated, without succumbing to groupthink? There are no simple answers, and outcomes depend on personalities and organisational cultures as much as on structures. The review’s recommendations seem wise, if implemented with the designated checks and balances. The ONA can rightly be housed in the Robert Marsden Hope Building.

The review’s second major recommendation is that the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) be turned into a statutory authority with increased responsibilities and resources. This, too, is an extension of Hope’s arguments. Hope was ahead of his time in foreseeing an important future for signals intelligence, then handled by a division in the Department of Defence. He urged that it be given greater autonomy from the defence minister and secretary. Today, when everyone recognises the importance of cyber as an arena of international contest, turning ASD into a more influential and independent agency is a logical further step in the direction initiated by Hope.

The office of the inspector-general of intelligence and security emerged from Hope’s second royal commission. The intelligence review rightly insists that, as the agencies increase their roles, responsibilities and resources, so should the accountability and oversight bodies. The review’s recommended augmentation of the office is entirely consistent.  Hope, however, doubted whether a parliamentary committee was appropriate in the Australian system. The Hawke government decided on a very limited model, which has had its remit extended over the years. The review’s proposal for further extension of the committee’s role is consistent with the views of (PDF) the respected former Labor senator and minister for defence, John Faulkner.

There is much else in the review that should form the basis of calm and rational discussion and prompt implementation. Any discussion should start from the basis that this review is the most thorough, comprehensive and clearly argued assessment of the intelligence agencies since the Hope royal commissions; that it consciously aims to bring the structures and principles enunciated by Hope into the current strategic environment; that it is frank about the areas in which those structures and principles require revision; and that constructive discussion and prompt implementation should not be submerged beneath the controversy over the establishment of a Home Affairs portfolio.

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/intelligence-review-hope-years-come/

[1] accurately described: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/good-not-good-policymaking/

[2] 2017 Independent Intelligence Review: https://pmc.gov.au/resource-centre/national-security/report-2017-independent-intelligence-review

[3] right to argue: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/intelligence-review-design-for-a-secure-home/news-story/4077586a777f266a77cf37f17dbe8137

[4] the views of: http://apo.org.au/system/files/41934/apo-nid41934-60111.pdf