It has been five years since the release of the Independent Review of the Intelligence Community (or IRIC). Why do we need another review now?

The IRIC endorsed the work the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC) had undertaken in response to the recommendations made by Philip Flood in his review of the AIC half a decade earlier. That reviewwas criticised for being too kind to the AIC, but to be fair, the AIC had already undergone a remarkable transformation since the 'protest years’ of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Flood was tasked to review the AIC following the controversies surrounding the use or misuse of intelligence in the lead up to the war in Iraq in 2003. While Flood had some important recommendations to make about clarifying the separation of responsibilities between the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessments, his review did not recommend sweeping changes to the system. Some wondered why that would be the case. The reason, in essence, is that Flood found that much of the work had already been done. The controversies from the mid-1970s and early 1980s had generated a succession of royal commissions into the intelligence community in Australia. These were headed by Justice Robert Marsden Hope. 

The Robert Marsden Hope Building in Canberra, which now houses the Office of National Assessments. Photo: Commonwealth of Australia/ONA

Hope’s two royal commissions (the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security from 1974-77 and the Royal Commission on Australia’s Security and Intelligence Agencies from 1983-84) led to a major overhaul of the governance and accountability mechanisms within the AIC. Hope also conducted the Protective Security Review after the Hilton hotel Bombing in 1979, linked with the establishment of the Protective Security Coordination Centre. Together, Hope’s three reviews led to a transformation. The term ‘AIC’ is widely credited as having emerged as a result of Hope’s work. Hope recognized the need for parliamentary oversight, leading to the creation of what became the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security. He called for the establishment of the Security Appeals Tribunal as part of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal arrangements. He called for a body to be established with the enduring powers of a royal commission; this led to the appointment of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security.

These mechanisms have largely stood the test of time. Australia has been able to confidently consider its intelligence oversight mechanisms as among the most advanced in the world. But the AIC is now not so neatly contained by the central six organisations examined by the Flood review and the IRIC. Nowadays a wide range of government bodies not only draw on the intelligence products of the AIC, but also conduct their own intelligence analysis. More organisations than ever also draw on the work of the AIC to raise their own security awareness and to help with contingency and other planning. The lines have blurred, suggesting there is some benefit from reviewing the AIC (as the basic accountability and governance infrastructure is in place, this review would not need to involve the kind of scrutiny that Justice Hope undertook).

When the IRIC was released, few in industry appreciated the significance of the threat emerging in the cyber domain. Today, the Australian Signals Directorate has not only been positioned as an instrument of state servicing the needs of the Department of Defence, but is also responsible for engaging with industry on a far larger scale than ever before contemplated. How that is arranged requires careful deliberation.

The security and intelligence challenge has become increasingly difficult, both domestically and internationally. At home, lone-wolf, self-radicalised individuals intent on violence and various secretive groups operating in the margins of society are more alert than ever to surveillance techniques, encrypting their communications and keeping a very low electromagnetic profile. Smaller electronic signatures make legitimate surveillance far more difficult.

Further afield, the old craft of espionage and counter-espionage has been dusted off and the skills of the Cold War appear to be back in demand. Challenges have multiplied, leaving security and intelligence agencies stretched to address their growing lists of priority tasks.

Oversight mechanisms, arising mostly from the reforms Hope helped instigate, consume a substantial proportion of the AIC’s resources. How to do more without eroding accountability measures will become an important point of concern.

After Hope’s recommendations were implemented Australia’s intelligence community became the international benchmark for intelligence oversight and structure. Today, however, others have caught up and gone further. Britain for instance, now has a parliamentary oversight committee that looks not just at administrative but also operational matters. There is a need to consider whether Australia should follow suit.

Dr John Blaxland is co-author with Dr Rhys Crawley of The Secret Cold War: the Official history of ASIO Vol III, 1975-1989 that is due to be released on 26 October.