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

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