Cloak and dollar: how much do security agencies in Australia really need?

In an era of evolving threats, judgment calls will continue to rely on the provision of accurate, timely intelligence. But this intelligence does not come cheap. In order to be well-prepared and well-organised…

Spy agencies in Australia have a big job, but does the job match the budget? Flickr/ocularinvasion

In an era of evolving threats, judgment calls will continue to rely on the provision of accurate, timely intelligence. But this intelligence does not come cheap.

In order to be well-prepared and well-organised, intelligence officials will always push for improved resources, greater organisational flexibility, enhanced operational powers and extra funding that can be used to predict and prevent modern-day security challenges.

After all, as Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) director-general David Irvine, recently put it “we remember the bomb that went off, not the one that was defused.”

But there can be problems when, without real accountability, money is poured into institutions simply because security is invoked.

Heavy burden

The promise of “winning” the so-called war against terrorism has placed a notably heavy burden on Australia’s secret intelligence agencies (and the work of domestic policing).

Irvine recently stated that the organisation was conducting “literally hundreds” of investigations into possible terrorist plans.

Indeed, potential security headaches continue to expand including cyber-terrorism, electronic espionage, maritime chokepoints, organised crime and people-smuggling.

Certainly, in the backdrop of 9/11, it can be argued that the Australian intelligence community was exposed as badly under-resourced. Its capacity had been damaged due to extensive across-the-board budget cuts in a post Cold War setting.

Such a predicament coincided in a climate of growing public demands for a type of “peace dividend” as well as a political ambiance that had failed to sell the usefulness and value of intelligence policies and adaptable procedures.

Deeper pockets

After the tragedy of 9/11, a wide range of problems pointed to obvious resource constraints and numerous budgetary shortcomings. Various observers cited items such as chronic under-staffing or a lack of investment in language and cultural skills that had inhibited the ability of intelligence agencies to perform better.

Of course, some major concerns had been self-inflicted by an intelligence contribution that sometimes appeared clumsy, unprofessional and lacking in adequate control and direction.

Nonetheless, the all-encompassing “War on Terror” had a major transformative impact on national security perspectives. A recalibrated political response, in part, quickly targeted the need for a more pre-emptive and agile intelligence machinery.

As a result, the boost in assets and resources has been colossal. Such enthusiasm for allocating significant additional funds is perhaps best captured by the grandiose new ASIO headquarters being built in Canberra – costed at around $600 million.

ASIO’s growth since 2001 has been substantial.

Overall, based on a topical report calculated by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), its budget has grown from $66 million to more than $400 million. Security and intelligence personnel has doubled in size to 1800 people.

Extra funding has been poured into information technology as well as human spies on the ground to enhance intelligence gathering capacity. The ASPI report added that, “…total funding for the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC) has increased at a pace faster than some of our allied intelligence partners”.

Bureaucratic monster?

The spy game may not be like in the movies, but security agencies increasingly have blockbuster budgets. Flickr/danielwaynecarter

Interestingly, the current introspective mood in the United States has extended to essential questions about whether the period of unyielding expansion of its intelligence agencies are both warranted and beneficial. In 2010, the US Congress approved an intelligence budget of about $80 billion.

Critics paint a worrying picture of a poorly structured bureaucratic monster. Agencies are accused of being fundamentally unreformed, over-reliant on private contractors, prone to territorial fights and remain littered with wasteful and unnecessary duplication.

Some even suggest that the gravity of the terrorist risk is overstated in order to camouflage a high level of political opportunism.

At the very least, citizens in all democratic countries should have some assurance that the tools of intelligence will be consistent with democratic ideals and that money is not being wasted.

Value for money

So are Australian taxpayers getting quality control and “bang for their buck”? Two key hurdles consistently resurface in efforts to measure the effectiveness of Australia’s intelligence and security sector.

Firstly, there is the emotionally-charged line of attack that equates revisions of intelligence investment as representing a mindset that is “soft on security”.

Perceptive to highly charged public expectations, policymakers do remain wary about being labelled as lacking in national security credentials. Individuals may fall prey to trying to project an image of leadership by simply throwing more money at the situation.

But agencies might be over-resourced, rapid increases in budget will not automatically equate with better security and intelligence spending should not be immune to cuts.

Need-to-know basis

Secondly, and more problematically, intelligence is rooted in official secrecy. Traditionally, to a large part, agencies are inclined to operate behind closed doors.

Their instinct has been to provide as little information as necessary – a basic “need-to-know” posture. Certainly, it is by no means unreasonable to wish to preserve sensitive technical capabilities, to shelter the character of clandestine operations and to protect informers and confidential identities from real and perceived enemies (and possibly even friends).

But in regard to assessing the value and impact of the AIC, the consequence is that there are no firm metrics by which to judge intelligence “successes”. And such a lack of transparency and built-in ambiguity does severely limit the opportunity to critically address matters of financial and associated accountability.

Intelligence officials, for example, have failed to answer questions posed by parliamentary committees on the grounds that they were “operational matters”.

More scrutiny needed

At the very least, a great deal of information remains classified and not available to the public. Such hurdles exist in the backdrop of genuine queries about whether our intelligence industry has too many organisations involved and if they possesses a coherent, overarching strategy.

In this context, the proposed Independent Review of the Intelligence Community ought to be a critical tool to attach a “reality check” to the national security agenda.

Recommendations will consider, in part, the level of resourcing dedicated to the intelligence community. Such an initiative was born from the 2004 Flood inquiry that called for regular external reviews of the intelligence community. And while costing around 3 million (taken from the ASIO budget), such an exercise should be seen as an indispensable investment.