Australia is to have an Intelligence Czar. For the politicians, the Czar is the answer to the single phone call question: the Czar will be charged with giving the answers—and will be answerable. The Czar will be at the peak to serve as conductor and, if needs be, a lightning conductor.
Forgive the hack hyperbole of the ‘Czar’ usage—some tabloid habits are too useful to forgo. As the top dog that ministers call, the Czar can make a lot of calls. The influence of the position will be broad, although its clout won’t extend to the right to issue specific orders to agencies. The Czar will be no Caesar; they will sit atop a diverse federation, setting directions rather than issuing decrees, with the weapons to wrangle rather than rule. The influence will come from oversight, control of new cash, and the centralising demand for coordination—and being the first one the prime minister calls.
The 2017 Independent Intelligence Review expressed the need for the Czar this way: ‘Our major recommendation is that an Office of National Intelligence (ONI) be established in the Prime Minister’s portfolio. This Office would be headed by a Director-General who would be the Prime Minister’s principal adviser on matters relating to the national intelligence community.’
And the reason we need a Czar, according to the L’Estrange–Merchant review: ‘Australia is now alone among its Five Eyes partners [US, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand] in not having a single point of co-ordination for its intelligence community. Australia currently has high-class intelligence agencies, but for individual agencies and the intelligence community generally to be truly world-class the whole must be greater than the sum of the parts.’
The review defined the power and limits of the director-general in closing intelligence gaps, making choices among relative priorities and getting the proper mix of coverage:
- the Czar will ‘not be empowered to direct the specific activities of agencies’.
Instead, the Czar will:
- direct the co-ordination of the national intelligence community to integrate strategies ‘across the suite of agency capabilities’
- be responsible for ‘enterprise-level management’ of the national intelligence community
- oversee national intelligence priorities
- undertake systematic and rigorous evaluation of the performance of the agencies
- plan the workforce and the joint capability for ‘enhanced data sharing and collaborative analysis’.
Money is power and power runs on money. The Czar will steer the federation by setting priorities, judging performance and directing the cash—bringing heads together, getting inside headspaces and sometimes banging heads. Lots of the work will be about pointing and persuading.
The man who did the same job in the US from 2010 to January 2017, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, says Australia’s first Czar should use more artful argument than power plays:
Who the first DG ONI is will be hugely important because of the precedents that he or she will set for successors. If I were king, which I clearly am not, I would recommend someone steeped in intelligence, preferably having served as an agency director—knowing all the players will be key to championing integration, collaboration, coordination on a day-to-day and systematic basis. It is worth emphasising that style counts. Furthering integration, coordination and collaboration across the Australian intelligence community will require artful persuasion and integrity, not overbearing force.
The new ONI will subsume the existing peak intelligence body, the Office of National Assessments. In building on the bones of ONA, the L’Estrange–Merchant review says ONI must expand its intelligence assessment function to generate ‘greater contestability’ and use more external expertise. The review found that ONA is stretched by ‘tasking and expectations’, doesn’t do as much as it should on the long-term versus day-to-day demands, and faces ‘unrealistic expectations of what ONA can and should do’. The prescribed fix is more people and money for ONI—plus the expanded role across the rest of the intelligence community.
The optimistic view is that intelligence coordination will no longer be a poor cousin to assessment. Good assessment, though, is the core of what has made ONA valuable. Allan Gyngell (head of ONA from 2009 to 2013) argues that the expansion to create ONI and empowering the Czar mustn’t become a cultural revolution:
I worked three times in ONA over a period of 30 years and the great strength of the organisation—noted again by L’Estrange and Merchant—lies in its strong culture of intellectual independence and internal contestability. Its small size, flat structure and the room it occasionally finds for passionate eccentrics who know their subject matter deeply, help sustain that culture. A great deal will depend on whether the ONI preserves and builds on this asset or overwhelms it in a new culture of operational responsiveness.
In the fourth of our series of ASPI interviews with Michael L’Estrange, one of the authors of the intelligence review, he argues that the DG of ONI must have a ‘light touch’ to deal with the ‘federated structure’ of the Oz intelligence community. That touch will be used to draw the intelligence community closer together to confront expanding challenges and threats, and to achieve both synergies and economies.