The “Independent Intelligence Review”, conducted by former senior bureaucrats Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant, and advised by former senior British spy Sir Iain Lobban, has received little coverage since its release yesterday, except to the extent that nowhere does it recommend the establishment of a home affairs portfolio, despite — directly contrary to the Prime Minister’s claim yesterday — the issue of structures being explicitly in the terms of reference for the review.

But what should have been an important root-and-branch review of Australia’s intelligence community is a major, perhaps spectacular, missed opportunity, and skips critical thinking for bureaucratic insularity, empire-building and a bizarre indifference to the key issues of intelligence and national security.

In a way, this is hardly surprising: L’Estrange and Merchant are former foreign affairs and national security bureaucrats. And their recommendations are exactly what you would expect from people within the existing system. Systems always preserve and replicate themselves; people within systems will clone themselves, and this forms the basis for their recommendations. They propose a new senior bureaucratic position, the Director-General of National Intelligence (primarily because the other Five Eyes countries have one). The current Office of National Assessments will be dramatically expanded to become the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), with two band-3 SES positions (this will be within the prime minister’s portfolio; how it interacts with the new Home Affairs minister is anyone’s guess).

There’s also to be a new head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre (that job has already gone to Alastair Macgibbon). There’s to be a new Intelligence Co-ordinator for Cyber Security. The Australian Signals Directorate is to be made an agency unto itself, led by another new director-general. In addition to all these new, senior positions, other new structures are apparently needed: an Intelligence Integration Board, an ONI Assessment Consultation Board, a National Intelligence Community Science and Technology Advisory Board (to support a “National Intelligence Community Innovation Hub”, whatever that is).

For a report focused on the need for greater co-ordination, there will be an awful lot of new structures and new acronyms to navigate.

With greater bureaucracy inevitably comes a need for greater funding: the aforementioned expansion of ONI will be by 50% on existing ONA levels. There’s to be an Intelligence Capability Investment Plan drawing on a Joint Capability Fund (funded by an efficiency dividend on intelligence agencies, which normally would be returned to the budget, not kept within the relevant area).

This is what happens when you ask former bureaucrats to consider how a bureaucracy can work better. Of course, that’s not to say there are any problems with the existing systems. The review speaks glowingly of the intelligence community, which is “highly capable … performed strongly … a strong positive culture of accountability … world-class tradecraft … held in high regard by their international partner agencies.” 

In fact, to read the review is to get the sense that there are no significant problems with Australia’s intelligence agencies at all. That ASIS did not illegally bug East Timor’s cabinet a decade and a half ago and try to cover it up when a former officer, on the recommendation of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, revealed it in the course of litigation, or that, to this day, an intelligence agency is preventing that individual from leaving Australia. That the Australian Signals Directorate did not cause a major diplomatic rift when its attempts to bug the president of Indonesia and his family were revealed. That we have not learnt from the revelations of Edward Snowden (who is mentioned only in passing in the review) that ASD and other agencies engage in commercial espionage to benefit Australian companies and those of other Five Eyes countries. That the electronic intelligence gathering policies of the Five Eyes do not materially make all of us less safe because of their tendency to maintain and exploit cybersecurity weaknesses. That the same persistent problem that has recurred overseas, of perpetrators of terrorist attacks being known, and often well known, to security agencies, has occurred here more than once. That the growing evidence is that mass surveillance actually makes the job of security agencies more difficult, not easier.

None of that, for the reviewers, is an issue, except the bugging of Indonesia’s president. The reviewers, without mentioning the specific incident, “consider it important for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to have visibility of sensitive activities undertaken overseas … which, if compromised, could damage Australia’s foreign policy or international relations”.

There’s also a disturbing sleight-of-hand around parliamentary oversight. Bureaucrats, in general, don’t like parliamentary oversight, and L’Estrange and Merchant are no exceptions. On the face of it, their recommendations around the role of parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security go a long way toward meeting the calls by former Labor veteran John Faulkner and current JCIS deputy chair Anthony Byrne for an expanded remit for that committee. The review recommends that JCIS be given expanded powers that both cement the role it has accrued since Nicola Roxon’s time, of vetting national security bills, and give it increased powers to seek information: in particular, the review recommends that JCIS be given the power to “initiate its own inquiries”. This is good news — except that Merchant and L’Estrange want that power limited only to “the administration and expenditure of the ten intelligence agencies of the NIC as well as proposed or existing provisions in counter-terrorism and national security law, and to review all such expiring legislation.”

That is, the committee would not be able to initiate its own reviews into operational matters — a massive omission. Instead, the committee would only be able to “request the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) conduct an inquiry into the legality and propriety of particular operational activities”.

This is fundamentally anti-democratic; it means the perpetuation of the current blind spot parliament has around operational matters (unless the government decides, as few governments ever would, to ask the committee to conduct an operational review). And given the handling of the Witness K matter by then-IGIS Vivienne Thom, it’s plain that that office can’t always be relied on.

The “independent” nature of the review flagged in its title is a misnomer. This is the existing system reviewing the existing system, and recommending that that very system be deepened, expanded, entrenched. It’s a recipe for the further growth of an unaccountable, exorbitantly funded national security bureaucracy that even the most powerful governments will struggle to control. Just the way bureaucrats like it.