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Australia’s director-general of national intelligence needs budget power

Posted By on April 7, 2021 @ 06:00

In November 2016, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced an independent review of Australia’s national intelligence community (NIC) to evaluate its operations and determine if it was effectively serving our national interests. A central aim of the review was to ‘provide a pathway to take those areas of individual agency excellence to an even higher level of collective performance through strengthening integration across Australia’s national intelligence enterprise’.

Two and a half years later, in May 2018, the government commissioned former defence secretary Dennis Richardson to undertake a comprehensive review of the legal framework of the NIC. An unclassified version of the review and the government’s response were released in December 2020. Richardson’s assessment has been characterised as the most substantial review into the legislation governing the NIC since the royal commissions led by Justice Robert Hope in the 1970s and 1980s.

In both reviews, the findings substantiated the heart of the NIC’s mission—to provide intelligence that informs strategic decision-making by eliminating or reducing uncertainty in support of the national strategy. The intelligence process, which supports the national strategy, is different but not separate from the national strategy’s policy process. Intelligence is achieved through collection and analysis; policy, through debate and implementation. The relationship between the two processes is dynamic, not necessarily sequential and often fractious. However, intelligence and policy are absolutely dependent on each other for their outcomes in support of the national strategy.

It’s clear from these two reviews that the government has put a great deal of effort into examining and assessing the NIC. As a result, recommendations, such as establishing the Office of National Intelligence headed by a director-general for national intelligence (DGNI), have ‘provided a pathway’ for improving the governance of intelligence in Australia and strengthening integration across Australia’s national intelligence enterprise.

Unfortunately, what the government has failed to do is conduct a similar review of the policy processes of Australia’s national strategy, so the DGNI can ‘appropriately integrate [intelligence] strategies across the suite of agency capabilities’. The lack of a comprehensive policy review of our national strategy, similar to the intelligence reviews, makes it rather vexing for the DGNI to integrate and coordinate NIC capabilities to support national strategic priorities.

A grand national strategy review is important not only to the NIC, but also for the nation. Why? Because a nation’s national strategy serves as its roadmap. It defines for the nation, regardless of which party is in power, what the nation’s priorities are while reconciling the means and ends with a purpose of action. A national strategy is enduring; it is adjusted slightly based on events—not changes in government. It is tempered against budget realities, is politically agnostic and is imbued with the cultural mores of its people.

Often, the security policy pillar is the emphasis of a national strategy because it’s the simplest to develop and sustain. However, a comprehensive national strategy places equal emphasis on all the crucial strategic policy pillars—information and technology, economics, diplomacy and security. To be clear, a national security policy is not a national strategy; it’s simply a component of the national strategy.

Indeed, the last time Australia had anything akin to a national strategy review was Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s national security review in 2013. Comparable to what we’ve seen from recent Liberal Party initiatives, the Gillard Labor government’s review was, predominantly, focused on Australia’s national security apparatus, as opposed to the totality of national strategy.

However, Australia should not feel lacking in this endeavour. The US, which is considered our closest strategic ally, hasn’t had a national strategy since Dwight Eisenhower was president in 1956. Beginning with the Kennedy administration in 1961, the US has lived off an approach driven almost exclusively by national security concerns and five-year budget cycles. As such, economic investments, diplomatic relations, and technological research and development initiatives in the US have a shelf life of four to five years at best (or, as seen with the Trump administration, the latest tweet).

In addition to a comprehensive national strategy review to assist the NIC in focusing its activities, the NIC would also benefit from the DGNI having some degree of budget authority. As our colleagues in the US discovered when they established the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) after the 9/11 attacks, the ability of the ODNI to ‘integrate’ the activities of the US national intelligence community was more vision than reality when it came to getting agencies to accept its guidance.

Initially, the ODNI had little to no authority to get the intelligence community to do much of anything that was not specifically directed in legislation or presidential executive order. And even then, some agencies just ignored the direction and guidance. Fortunately, over time, and with the assistance of congressional legislation, the ODNI gained authorities, including over the budget, which permitted it to loosely manage this federation of the willing.

There’s nothing in either Australian review that leads one to believe the intelligence agencies will embrace anything the DGNI ‘integrates’ if it’s not in their best interest. The review’s recommendations that keep the DGNI out of the day-to-day business of intelligence operations is spot-on. That’s the job of agency leaders. However, to ensure that NIC’s activities are tethered to the policies that support the national strategy, that there’s interagency coordination on requirements, and that operational missions are not duplicated across similar domains, the DGNI needs to be given some budget authority over the NIC.

Individual agencies would still be in charge of their budgets, but the DGNI, working with the NIC and parliament, would be the focal point for the planning, programming and budgeting of Australian resources to conduct intelligence activities—be it operational support, analysis, research and development, education or intelligence architectural improvements. Budget authority, more than any other authority, will permit the DGNI to ensure that the NIC’s national strategy responsibilities are aligned, resourced and properly executed while strengthening integration across Australia’s national intelligence enterprise.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill lamented after World War II at ‘how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous; how counsels of prudence and restraint became the prime agents of mortal danger; and how the middle road was adopted from a desire for safety, which, in turn, was a direct roadmap to disaster’.

As a nation, Australia is standing at a crossroads on that roadmap, and the road to divert disaster is clear. The more challenging road is to conduct a comprehensive national strategy review and to consider giving the DGNI more authority over the NIC in order to strengthen integration across Australia’s national intelligence enterprise. Or we can continue, in our desire for safety, to travel a middle road of bifurcated policies, thus ceding the opportunity to hungrier and more assured powers that don’t share our values, our interests or our multiculturalism.

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[1] comprehensive review: https://www.ag.gov.au/national-security/consultations/comprehensive-review-legal-framework-governing-national-intelligence-community