History of the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC)

Where the AIC began

Australia's intelligence effort started in the lead-up to the First World War, when it emphasised counter-espionage. During the Second World War, the first parts of what became today's AIC sigint organisation were formed to support US and Australian forces in the Pacific. The Defence Signals Bureau (now known as the Australian Signals Directorate - ASD), formally came into existence in 1947.

Following the Second World War, the sigint focus was on Soviet communications. Concern about our own security led to the establishment of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in 1949. Its immediate purpose was to pursue Russian spies.

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) was formed in the Department of Defence in 1952. It was modelled on its British counterpart (MI6) and focused on collecting humint and conducting operations in peacetime. It was in 1954 that responsibility for ASIS shifted to what we now call the Foreign Minister, but it wasn't until 1977 that the existence of ASIS was publicly acknowledged.

The AIC includes two assessment agencies. From the time of the Second World War the Department of Defence had an intelligence assessment arm. Following the war, it became the Joint Intelligence Bureau and then the Joint Intelligence Organisation in 1970, today we know it as the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO). The Office of National Assessments (ONA) was established as an independent agency in 1978, following a recommendation of the first Hope Royal Commission (more below).

The newest member of the AIC is the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation (AGO). Imagery intelligence had existed since 1964, but until 1998 it was an integrated part of DIO. As the importance of imagery increased, it was decided to create a new agency. In 2000 the various imagery organisations were formally combined and AGO was formed.

Shaping the AIC

Hope Report Cover
NAA: A8908, 7B

Over the years the demands on the AIC have changed, and there have been a number of inquiries into various aspects of the community. All these inquiries have resulted in continuing government support for the AIC. Three which have had lasting effects are the two Hope Royal Commissions of 1974-77 and 1984 and the Flood Inquiry of 2004.

In his first Royal Commission, Justice Hope articulated a number of key principles that are still at the root of the AIC today. Justice Hope recommended that:

  • Australia should have its own independent and robust intelligence assessment and collection capability
  • Intelligence assessment should be separate from policy formulation and intelligence collection should be separate from intelligence assessment
  • Humint and sigint capabilities should reside in different agencies
  • ONA, as the principal assessment agency, should enjoy statutory independence. And, in addition to assessing international developments of major importance to Australia, ONA should also review Australia's foreign intelligence activities
  • ASIO's collection and assessment of security intelligence should be separate from law enforcement
  • There should be appropriate Ministerial oversight of the intelligence community, and
  • All intelligence activities should be conducted in accordance with Australian law.

Out of the second Hope Royal Commission came stronger measures to enhance the transparency and accountability of the AIC. This included the establishment of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security in 1987, and also the formation of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (see below).

All Hope's recommendations were accepted, and now each agency in the AIC has a distinct role and function. Collectively, we use our specialised capabilities, knowledge and expertise to achieve Australia's national security objectives.

The other important - and more recent - review of ONA, DIO, ASIS, ASD and AGO was completed in July 2004. The Flood Inquiry was commissioned to look broadly at the foreign intelligence agencies, but with a particular focus on:

  • The effectiveness of oversight and accountability mechanisms
  • The suitability of the division of effort among the agencies
  • The maintenance of contestability in intelligence assessments provided to government, and
  • The adequacy of resourcing.

Flood didn't recommend any significant changes to the structure set up by the Hope Royal Commissions. He did however present some wide-ranging recommendations to improve the accountability and management of the AIC. This resulted in changes to ONA's legislation to strengthen its coordination and evaluation responsibilities The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was given new responsibilities to ensure the coordination of the setting of intelligence priorities, the evaluation of AIC performance and of AIC resourcing.

National security and the AIC

The primary responsibility of all the members of the AIC is to collect and assess foreign intelligence, but clear distinctions between the foreign and the domestic are breaking down. In areas like terrorism, organised crime and cyber security a broader national approach is now needed.

The then Prime Minister, in his 2008 National Security Statement, said "Increasing complexity and inter-connectedness is a fact of life in the modern, global environment. Classical distinctions between foreign and domestic, national and international, internal and external have become blurred."  The 2008 Smith Review of Homeland and Border Security reported on the best and most efficient way to coordinate Australia's overall national security effort - of which intelligence is an important part.

The functions of AIC agencies for the most part have not changed. What has changed is the way the elements of national security are coordinated.

You can read Australia's National Security Framework here:

Australia's National Security Framework - DOC 48KB

Who's who in the AIC

ONA, established by the ONA Act, provides all-source assessments on international political, strategic and economic developments to the Prime Minister and senior ministers in the National Security Committee of Cabinet. It draws its information from other intelligence agencies, as well as diplomatic reporting, information and reporting from other government agencies, and open source material.

It is also responsible for coordinating and evaluating Australia's foreign intelligence activities. It does this to ensure that the AIC can properly meet the intelligence needs of government.

DIO is part of the Defence portfolio and is an all-source Defence intelligence assessment agency. It provides intelligence assessment and advice on the strategic posture, policy and intent and the military capabilities of countries relevant to Australia's security. It is the government's primary source of analytical expertise on weapons of mass destruction, military capabilities, defence economics and global military trends. http://www.defence.gov.au/dio/

ASIS is Australia's overseas humint collection agency. This intelligence collection focuses on the capabilities, intentions and activities of individuals or organisations outside Australia which affect Australia's security, foreign relations or national economic well-being. http://www.asis.gov.au/

ASD is Australia's foreign sigint agency and also part of the Defence portfolio. It has two principal functions: to collect and report on foreign communications in support of Australia's national and defence interests; and as the national authority on the security of information on communications and information systems across government. ASD also provides direct support to Australian Defence Force deployments, and also to counter-terrorism, military and law enforcement operations. http://www.asd.gov.au/

AGO is the third intelligence agency in the Defence portfolio. It is the lead foreign geoint organisation in the Australian Government, supporting our defence and national interests. AGO also has important non-intelligence functions. It provides digital and hardcopy maps and tailored imagery and geospatial products for incorporation into Geographic Information Systems. It has also established mapping programs with a range of regional countries. http://www.defence.gov.au/AGO/

ASIO is Australia's security service. Its main role is to collect and assess intelligence to advise the government on security threats to Australians and Australian interests at home and overseas. ASIO also provides security assessments and protective security advice to the government. http://www.asio.gov.au/

AIC Overview


AIC Overview - PDF 245KB