Australia’s fledgling intelligence community began before World War One. It’s continued to grow and consolidate ever since. Until the 1970s little was known about the intelligence community and several agencies – ASIS and ASD (previously known as DSD) – were not publicly acknowledged until 1978 and 1979 respectively. Nowadays the intelligence community is much more open about what it does to support government.  

If you’re interested in applying for a role in the National Intelligence Community (NIC), or just keen to find out how the NIC has evolved over the years, here’s some useful information: 

The National Intelligence Community 

The National Intelligence Community (NIC) was officially formed after the Australian Government's adoption of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review's (IIR) recommendations.

The NIC includes the 6 agencies that formerly made up the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC) including the: 

  • Office of National Assessments (ONA)  
  • Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) 
  • Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation (AGO) 
  • Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) 
  • Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)  
  • Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) 

The NIC also includes: 

  • Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), and

the intelligence functions of the: 

  • Australian Federal Police (AFP) 
  • Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) 
  • Department of Home Affairs (DHA) 

These agencies and departments form the Australian Government's intelligence enterprise. They collect, analyse and disseminate intelligence information and advice. They do so in line with the nation’s interests and national security priorities.

The IIR noted that these tasks are growing more difficult, given the: 

  • increasing complexity of Australia's geostrategic environment 
  • rapid pace of technological change 
  • increasing security and intelligence challenges.  

The establishment of the NIC addresses these challenges. Its mandate is to integrate the intelligence functions of government and provide more opportunities for: 

  • collaboration 
  • coordination 
  • cooperation.

Where it all began – the AIC

Australia's intelligence effort started in the lead-up to the First World War, with a primary focus on counter-espionage.

During the Second World War, the first parts formed of what was to become today's intelligence community. Its aim was to support US and Australian forces in the Pacific through the provision of signals intelligence (SIGINT). The Defence Signals Bureau, now known as the ASD, formally came into existence in 1947. 

Following the Second World War, the focus of SIGINT shifted to Soviet communications. At the same time, growing concerns about Australia's security led to the establishment of ASIO in 1949. Its immediate purpose was to pursue Russian spies. 

In 1952, ASIS was formed under the portfolio of the Department of Defence. Modelled on its British counterpart, MI6, ASIS focused on collecting human intelligence (HUMINT). In 1954, Ministerial authority for ASIS shifted to what we now know as the Minister for Foreign Affairs. In 1977, ASIS's existence was publicly acknowledgement for the first time. 

During the Second World War, the Department of Defence shared its intelligence assessment functions with the: 

  • Australian Army 
  • Royal Australian Navy 
  • Royal Australian Air Force  

Plus the department’s intelligence assessment arm, the Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB). The formation of the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) took place in 1970. JIO began through a merger of JIB with most of the foreign assessment elements of the 3 armed services.  

In 1989, a review of Defence intelligence saw JIO become the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO). It became Defence's only strategic-level, all-source intelligence assessment agency.

The ONA was the second of the 2 intelligence assessment agencies that included the AIC. In 1978, the Government's passage of the Office of National Assessments Act 1977 saw the ONA established as an independent agency. This was in line with the recommendations of the first Hope Royal Commission. 

The final organisation to join the AIC was the AGO. Since 1964, Australia's imagery intelligence analysis capability had existed but until 1998, it was an integrated part of DIO.  

In 2000, the various imagery analysis functions in the Australian Government were combined under a new organisation, the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation (DIGO). DIGO has since changed its name to AGO. 

Shaping the Intelligence Community

Since the Second World War, the demands on the intelligence community have evolved. This has resulted in some reviews of the community as a whole including the: 

First Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security 1974 to 1977

In his first Royal Commission, Justice Hope spoke of key principles that still stand in the intelligence community today. In particular, Justice Hope recommended that:

  • Australia should have its own independent and robust intelligence assessment and collection capabilities. Intelligence assessment should be separate from policy formulation. 
  • Intelligence collection should be separate from intelligence assessment. HUMINT and SIGINT capabilities should live in different agencies. 
  • The establishment of an independent intelligence assessment agency, with statutory independence. Now known as ONA. 
  • ONA should review Australia's foreign intelligence priorities and activities. It should so when assessing international developments of major importance. 
  • ASIO's collection and assessment of security intelligence should be separate from law enforcement. 
  • There should be appropriate Ministerial oversight of the intelligence community. 
  • All intelligence activities should take place under Australian law. 

Royal Commission on Australia’s Security and Intelligence Agencies 1984 (the second Hope Royal Commission)

In 1983, Prime Minister Hawke commissioned a new inquiry into Australian intelligence agencies to look at their: 

  • operations 
  • conduct 
  • performance 
  • control 
  • accountability.  

This second Hope Royal Commission would make sure that the recommendations from the first commission, were in action. It would also make sure the recommendations were meeting the task to provide Australia with the security apparatus it needed.  

The review supported the need for Australia’s intelligence agencies and investment in those agencies. It also acknowledged the benefits and limitations of the existing procedures and control measures.  

The second Hope Royal Commission resulted in: 

  • stronger measures to improve the AIC's transparency and accountability 
  • the establishment of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security in 1987 
  • formation of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Inquiry into the Australian Intelligence Agencies 2004 (The Flood Inquiry) 

In 2004, The Flood Inquiry was the next important review of Australian intelligence agencies and included the: 

  • ONA 
  • DIO 
  • ASIS 
  • ASD 
  • AGO  

The Flood Inquiry aimed to look broadly at these intelligence agencies, in line with a recommendation from an earlier Parliamentary Joint Committee on the inquiry into intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This involved the:  

  • ASIO 
  • ASIS 
  • Defence Signals Directorate (DSD).   

In particular, the Flood Inquiry focused on the:   

  • effectiveness of oversight and accountability mechanisms 
  • suitability of the division of effort among the agencies, and communication between them 

maintenance of contestability in intelligence assessments provided to government  

  • adequacy of resourcing of intelligence agencies, in particular ONA.  

Flood's report did not recommend any large changes to the AIC's structure, as established following the two Hope Royal Commissions. Yet it did present wide-ranging recommendations to improve the AIC's accountability and management.  

For ONA, this resulted in legislative changes that strengthened its coordination and evaluation responsibilities. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet received new responsibilities to: 

  • tell government on the AIC's performance, priorities and resources  
  • conduct an annual review of ONA's performance. 

The Flood Inquiry also recommended that Australia's intelligence agencies undergo external review every 5 to 7 years. 

2011 Independent Review of the Intelligence Community

After the Flood Inquiry, the next comprehensive review of the AIC was the 2011 Independent Review of the Intelligence Community.  
The review found that Australia's intelligence agencies were performing well following significant growth in response to the security challenges of the 9/11 decade. 
Its other findings included: 

  • The AIC played a vital role in keeping Australians safe and protecting Australia's security interests. 
  • Investment in the intelligence community over the past decade had resulted in increased capability and performance. 
  • The AIC's basic structure remained appropriate, including the operational mandate of agencies. 

Its recommendations focused on initiatives to maintain the performance of the community despite resource constraints including: 

  • priority setting and mission integration 
  • performance evaluation 
  • support for innovation 
  • strategies for managing intelligence collection in a time of abundant information.

Forming a National Intelligence Community

The 2017 Independent Intelligence Review by Mr Michael L'estrange AO, Mr Stephen Merchant PSM and supported by Sir Iain Lobban KCMG CB laid the foundation for today’s National Intelligence Community (NIC).

The review looked at Australia's intelligence arrangements and structures to determine if they remained suitable to meet the nation's future security requirements. 
It found Australia’s intelligence agencies were increasingly stretched. They needed to be better integrated in their efforts to meet the: 

  • complexity of the geostrategic environment 
  • pace of technological change 

increasing security and intelligence challenges facing Australia. The review made 23 recommendations to government.  

For ONA, the most significant of these was the recommendation to legislatively expand to form a new agency, the ONI. This would include an improved coordination and evaluation remit.  

In May 2018, the Government commissioned The Comprehensive Review of the Legal Framework of the National Intelligence Community. Led by Mr Dennis Richardson AC, it was a comprehensive review of the legal framework governing the NIC. This is the most wide-reaching review of its kind since the Hope Royal Commissions in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Australian Intelligence Community Timeline

The AIC has been active since the Second World War. The timeline below highlights key dates in its history.

The Defence Signals Bureau established. Now known as ASD. 

ASIO established. 

ASIS established. 

The Petrov Affair. 
Royal Commission on Espionage. 

The Department of Defence's Joint Intelligence Organisation established. Now known as DIO 

The Hope Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security 1974 to 1978. 

Office of National Assessments Act. 
Public acknowledgment of ASIS.  

The ONA established. 
Public acknowledgement of DSD, now known as ASD. 

Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation Act. 

Second Hope Royal Commission on Australia's Security and Intelligence Agencies 1983 to 1984. 

Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Act. 

Commission of inquiry into the Australian Secret Intelligence Service 1994 to 1995. 

Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation, now known as AGO, established after merging of the: 

  • Australian Imagery Organisation 
  • Directorate of Strategic Military Geographic Information 
  • Defence Topographic Agency. 

Intelligence Services Act. 
Tampa inquiry conducted by IGIS from 2001 to 2002. 

Bali bombing inquiry conducted by IGIS. 

Parliamentary inquiry into intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction 2003 to 2004. 

Flood Inquiry into Australian intelligence agencies. 

Amendments to: 

  • Intelligence Services Act 
  • Office of National Assessments Act 
  • Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Act and Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act. 

Homeland and Border Security Review. 
Appointment of National Security Adviser and creation of National Intelligence Coordination Committee. 

Independent Review of the Intelligence Community. Initiatives to maintain performance and capabilities of the AIC. 

The release of the Department of Defence’s First Principles Review of Defence. 

Defence Strategic Policy and Intelligence Group established. 

Independent Intelligence Review. An expanded intelligence enterprise, the National Intelligence Community (NIC), with new and increased functions for ONA and its transition to ONI. 
DHA formed. 
Movement of IGIS to Attorney-General's Portfolio. 

ONA becomes ONI following passage of legislation. 
ASD becomes a statutory agency under the Defence portfolio. 

Release of the Comprehensive Review of the Legal Framework of the National Intelligence Community (Richardson Review).