Australia’s intelligence agencies send mixed signals on openness and transparency

By Peter Edwards

Monday November 16, 2020

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On 1 September the director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate, Rachel Noble, gave a well-publicised speech titled ‘Long histories — short memories: the transparently secret ASD in 2020’. The themes were that the agency would be as transparent as an inherently secret agency could be about its role and the legal constraints upon it, and a pride at how it had evolved from the primitive Defence Signals Bureau in 1947 to the highly capable and technologically advanced organisation of today.

Many listeners probably expected a proud reference to ASD’s official history, commissioned by Noble’s predecessor Mike Burgess in 2019 and scheduled for publication in 2022. Instead, there was silence on this project, followed a few days later by the revelation that the history, on which work was already well advanced, had been decommissioned.

The decision was both regrettable and surprising. The reasons for the disappointment were underlined shortly afterwards when the UK’s GCHQ, ASD’s senior partner in the Five Eyes network, published its own authorised history. In a foreword the head of GCHQ said that explaining the agency’s past, and being open about its successes and failures, was an essential basis for ‘maintaining our licence to operate’. Just as GCHQ was following MI5 and MI6 in publishing official histories, so ASD had appeared to be following the tradition established by ASIO, which had recently published a three-volume official history. ASD’s choice of John Blaxland as its official historian was based on his substantial contribution to the ASIO history.

Both the British and Australian agencies have evidently decided that such histories contribute to developing the public trust that is essential for secret agencies to operate effectively. Moreover, the GCHQ history includes substantial coverage of the origins of signals intelligence and cryptanalysis in Britain. Noble told a Senate estimates committee that her decision was based on Blaxland’s extensive coverage of the early history of sigint in Australia.

The ASD decision was surprising in the context of recent developments affecting Australia’s intelligence and security agencies, since Malcolm Turnbull’s government announced two decisions in 2017. By accepting the recommendations of the independent intelligence review by Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant, the government endorsed the upgrading of the Office of National Assessments to the Office of National Intelligence, with the broad remit of coordinating the work of the entire intelligence community.

This was consistent with the vision of the principal architect of that community, Justice Robert Marsden Hope, in his two royal commissions in the 1970s and 1980s. Intelligence agencies, he said, should serve the whole of government, and not be dominated by one or two powerful policymaking departments. They should be coordinated by an agency responsible to the prime minister. Policymaking should similarly be a whole-of-government matter, coordinated by ministerial and official committees, with no single department given a predominant role.

On the same day that Turnbull announced the upgrading of ONA to become ONI, he also announced the creation of the Department of Home Affairs. A number of intelligence and law enforcement agencies were placed into a mega-portfolio, with a strong policy mindset of ‘keeping Australians safe’. This ran counter to several of Hope’s fundamental principles, including the separation of intelligence from policymaking, the separation of collection from assessment, and the separation of intelligence from law enforcement.

Since then, a number of events and announcements gave rise to the charge that Peter Dutton as minister and Michael Pezzullo as department head were seeking to turn Home Affairs into an even more wide-ranging ‘Department of National Security’, encroaching on the terrain of other departments.

In recent months, there appears to have been a change of tack, designed to achieve the same strategic goal. The apparent aims have been twofold: to establish the central role of Home Affairs in all matters of national security, and to enable ASD to monitor Australian ‘bad actors’. The tactics have included much greater emphasis on public presentations by the heads of intelligence and security agencies, all emphasising the importance of transparency.

Noble’s speech, for example, was part of a series of presentations at the Australian National University’s National Security College. Mike Burgess has made a number of public presentations, first as ASD head and then as head of ASIO, all emphasising the importance of making secret agencies as transparent as possible about their past, current and likely future activities. Readers of The Strategist will be aware of the series of four interviews with Paul Symon, the head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, currently being published.

The Australian malefactors who are in the agencies’ sights are, it is stressed, not only terrorists but also paedophiles, and the work of AUSTRAC on associated money-laundering has had a considerable impact.

These presentations refer frequently to the existence and powers of oversight agencies, including the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. Noble’s presentation to the National Security College was consistent with this approach, but the decision to decommission the history was in sharp contrast.

While Dutton has kept a lower profile, Pezzullo has continued to argue publicly, in several interviews, that Australia faces an unprecedented number of threats to its security, that his role as secretary of Home Affairs is central to the coordination of Australia’s response, and that the expanded role of ASD is an important element in Australia’s capabilities. It was noteworthy that Pezzullo attended Noble’s presentation at the National Security College, but the outgoing director-general of national intelligence, Nick Warner, did not.

Following these mixed signals comes the government’s appointment of Andrew Shearer as the new head of ONI. As a former deputy director-general of ONA, Shearer is likely to share that organisation’s pride that its assessments are guaranteed by legislation to be independent of ministerial or departmental influence. Having been a senior adviser to Coalition prime ministers and most recently Cabinet secretary, he would be exceptionally well qualified to ensure that ONI fulfils the role envisaged by Hope and reinforced by L’Estrange and Merchant — an agency that will coordinate the entire intelligence network, responsible to the prime minister and providing independent intelligence assessments to policymakers at the highest level, but not dominated by any one department.

The signals from the intelligence community in the coming months and years should be carefully monitored.

This article is curated from ASPI’s The Strategist.

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