Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 07:36 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 07:36 | SYDNEY

NSS: The story the media missed


Rory Medcalf


18 December 2008 14:55

Given the exhaustive detail of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s National Security Statement a fortnight ago, it is not surprising that so little media attention was paid to one of its more substantive elements: a change to Australia’s intelligence co-ordination system. The statement announced the establishment of a National Intelligence Coordination Committee (NICC):

This committee, which the National Security Adviser will chair, will ensure the national intelligence effort is fully and effectively integrated. This will make sure that our intelligence efforts – including foreign, defence, security and transnational law-enforcement intelligence – are closely aligned and accord with Australia’s national security priorities.

Sounds good and sensible, but the statement neglected to mention that the formation of this committee means the abolition of an existing, and to all appearances well functioning, Foreign Intelligence Coordination Committee (FICC). This was born from one of the recommendations of the 2004 Flood review into Australia’s intelligence services and delivered new levels of oversight and coordination of intelligence assessment and collection under a strengthened Office of National Assessments (ONA).

What is the difference between the FICC and the new NICC?

The former was focused on foreign intelligence – including the work of ASIO and the AFP where it had an international dimension – and was chaired by the director-general of ONA, an independent statutory officer. It seems the focus of the NICC will be much the same, although it will more explicitly integrate national security (ie. ASIO) and law-enforcement (AFP) intelligence. A notable difference, though, is that the NICC will be chaired by the National Security Adviser, a very senior official in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

There is an obvious logic to integrating foreign and ASIO/AFP intelligence co-ordination, in a world where 21st century threats do not heed the turf boundaries of 20th century government bodies. But this, it would seem, was already happening.

And the decision to shift responsibility for chairing the committee to the PM’s Department raises a few questions. While the first National Security Adviser and his senior team are first-rate, the demands on their time will be very large. Is intelligence coordination a burden they will be resourced to manage? And if so, will that mean that the staffing base for the intelligence coordination process is to be shifted from ONA to the PM’s Department? Or will there be an odd hybrid process in which one organisation does the secretariat work while another does the chairing?

Or, even more confusingly, will there be two parallel and potentially contending hubs of coordination in the Australian intelligence community, each claiming the largely overlapping territories of ‘national security’ and ‘foreign’ intelligence? After all, the Prime Minister has said that ONA ‘will continue to exercise its statutory responsibilities’, and these, under the ONA Act, include the co-ordination and evaluation of Australia’s foreign intelligence effort. Clarity on this score would be welcome.

Second, is there any risk at all – not now, but in the future – that the chairing and possible management of the national intelligence co-ordination function by a senior policy official could blur the boundary between intelligence and policy? I raise this point without questioning the integrity of any particular public servant. But the controversy over the Iraq WMD intelligence failure – which in Australia led to the Flood review – underlines the importance of this boundary.

The main purpose of a firewall between intelligence assessment and policy-making is to maximize the chances that the former will be objective and that it can inform policy, not the other way around. And what matters is not only the maintenance of this separation in practice but also its durability in the eyes of the public. After Iraq, no Australian government can afford any doubt in the public mind about the functional separation of what a PM needs to know and what a PM wants to do.

The Government would be well advised to offer some reassurance on this front, rather than waiting until it finds itself citing intelligence to justify some controversial action.