The Turnbull government is commissioning an independent “check-up” on the health of Australia’s six intelligence agencies. The aim is broadly to examine how well the intelligence community is positioned to support national interests, identify what intelligence can – and cannot – do, and recommend priorities and policy responses to evolving security threats.
This will be the first major review since the paper-thin and arguably substandard Cornall-Black report of 2011.
Intelligence agencies are not exempt from larger problems that sometimes exist across government. Although the specific parameters of the upcoming review (and who will lead it) are still to be established, it has already spurred some commentary that has quickly expressed little faith in any analysis or assessment of the intelligence community.
Such calculations do appear premature, despite past disappointments.
Nonetheless, any credible evaluation of process on the roles and habits of the intelligence community will need to incorporate a number of critical issues. These include:
how to best allocate finite resources;
whether intelligence agencies have a clear separation from their political masters;
methods to maintain and preserve high-quality analysis; and
how best to tackle emerging inter-agency and transnational structural challenges.
The manner in which the review addresses these challenges will have a direct impact on reducing future intelligence breakdown and disenchantment.
Additionally, given the secrecy of much intelligence work, rigorous assessments about how transparent and how well overseen it is – including the role of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security – should be high on the agenda.
The illusion of control
It can be argued that intelligence work intended to warn governments of emerging risks is an inexact science. An unpleasant truth is that some future intelligence failures will be inescapable. Pinpointing risk, especially to stop less-sophisticated “lone-wolf” (some prefer “alienated loser”) attacks, will remain a highly complex and difficult task.
Neither intelligence agencies or policymakers should feign omniscience. Nor should the public expect that the never-ending threat of terrorism can be completely “eliminated”. Terrorism should be viewed as a problem that is rare and in most cases manageable.
An equal danger is to inflate the perception of risk, causing dangerous over-reaction and undermine clear-eyed analysis of broad security problems.
Of course, threats to human security such as terrorism do remain a serious predicament and the security sector should always be thinking about how to achieve more efficient, agile and practical performance.
But any increase in the powers accorded to intelligence bodies should always be justifiable, proportionate and aligned to democratic principles.
The democratic backbone
One perennial challenge is that carefully considering what spies are up to in the name of national security is easier said than done.
Democratic safeguards do have a valuable impact in monitoring and evaluating the operations and activities of intelligence agencies, from quality control to value for money to impropriety. As such, plenty of scope for improvement remains.
For example, Russell Trood and Anthony Bergin have previously mooted several hands-on measures to advance parliament’s role in the conduct of national security. These stem from developing MPs’ education in national security to possibly seconding national security experts to parliamentary committees.
At the very least, effective oversight and accountability arrangements can provide a reality check on government planning and conduct.
Similarly, robust oversight to provide guidance and monitoring of the intelligence community remains critical in building public confidence. An obsession with executive privilege and government secrecy in the planning and funding of intelligence operations can produce more insecurity in the public sphere.
The appearance of accountability does not necessarily depoliticise national security and prevent the exploitation of a covert intelligence machinery.
So it will also be crucial that intelligence agencies remain impartial, provide rigorous counsel, and challenge orthodoxies. Environments and processes that might distort or misuse the objectivity and authority of intelligence work must be identified and guarded against.
The global e-village
With the evolution of multiple transnational security problems, intelligence has been thrust onto the front line against new threats. As such, the review will also need to reflect on the working arrangements between intelligence agencies and international partners.
Common security problems will require collective solutions. In an era of complex interdependence in dealing with threats from terrorist groups to organised crime to pandemic disease, no country can afford to act in isolation.
Similarly, another topical review target will be the threat posed by increasing cyber-warfare activity. Due to advances in technology, state actors like China are regularly portrayed as highly active in the intensified game of surveillance and spycraft.
One of the great challenges is that it is not always easy to identify the “enemy” in the cyber-world. Policymakers have been accused of feeding into or manipulating a climate of “cyber-angst”. Intense cyberwar scenarios can act as a justification for the loss of privacy, untargeted mass surveillance, the unnecessary militarisation of cyberspace and sweeping executive powers. This is compounded by a lack of clear, reasonable discourse on many cyber issues.
Behind the curtains
Ideas about the role of intelligence have shifted. Demands around detail and timeliness have intensified. Obsession with secrecy by governments has hardened. Public cynicism and – in many cases – paranoia remains pervasive.
It is anticipated that the review will generate both an unclassified and classified final report.
But it is not only decision-makers that need to better understand what intelligence can provide. The review presents a window of opportunity to improve the quality of public debate over national security.
As such, the government’s credibility as a manager of national security, and its ability to appeal to intelligence as the basis for policy, will strongly depend on a review outcome that provides assurance that the tools of intelligence are valid and proportional, resources are not being wasted, and law-abiding citizens will be protected against the use of state power in a capricious, over-zealous or arbitrary way.