AIC: The Australian Intelligence Community

1.0 Introduction

Known collectively as the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC), the following intelligence agencies have been at the forefront in protecting Australia from external threats. Particularly in the form of foreign espionage, but also from new and malevolent ideologies.

2.0 History of the AIC

2.1 Wartime Security

 In 1916, the British government established an Australian branch of the Imperial Counter Espionage Bureau. Formally known as the Australian Special Intelligence Bureau (SIB), with close ties to the police forces.

In 1917, the Commonwealth Police Force was created, merging only two years later with the SIB to form the Investigation Branch (IB). With the latter at the helm of wartime security until 1941 when the Commonwealth Security Service (CSS) assumed its role.

Following the conclusion of the war, the new Commonwealth Investigation Service (CIS) assumed responsibility of security intelligence functions in 1946. However, by 1947, security leaks had left British and US intelligence authorities unwilling to share information with Australia [source].

3.0 Organisation: Constituent Parts of Australian Intelligence Community

3.1 The Office of National Intelligence (ONI)

ONI is the Australian equivalent of the United Kingdom’s Joint Intelligence Organisation. Not least, the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Before 2018, ONI operated under the auspices of the Office of National Assessments (ONA). The name later changed to ONI following a 2017 Independent Intelligence Review [source].

ONA was established by the Office of National Assessments Act 1977 [source]. Its mandate is to be the principal analytical unit of the Prime Minister and senior ministers on the National Security Committee of the Cabinet. It synthesises all intelligence from HUMINT in addition to electronic or signals intercepts (SIGINT). With a view to crafting frank and honest security assessments untainted by policy interests.

The ONI has two major roles within the AIC. Both of which have led some observers to believe that it sits at the apex of foreign intelligence, rather than domestic intelligence. In reality, there is no clear bureaucratic hierarchy within the AIC.

The Australian government designed the ONA as a purely analytical body. The Office of National Assessments Act established the Director-General of ONA as an independent statutory officer. It did so to prevent politicisation and prohibited ONA from offering policy advice to the Prime Minister and senior officials.

3.1.1 Sister Agencies

Second, the Act specifically prohibited ONA from offering policy advice to the Prime Minister, senior officials, and government ministers. The modern ONI has access to all intelligence gathered by agencies whose duties focus on collection, including:

  • The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS),
  • The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)
  • Australian Signals Directorate (ASD)
  •  Australian Geospatial Organisation (AGO)
  • The Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO)

3.1.2 Limitations

However, it has no legal remit to engage in acts of espionage or intelligence gathering [source]. In 2005, ONA established an Open-Source Portal. It is responsible for collecting and assessing the accuracy of materials from open sources. Including the Australian and overseas media and academic journals.

Further, ONA’s other major responsibility under the Act was to coordinate collection activities among AIC’s main agencies [see above]. ONA’s role in this regard was undertaken through mechanisms such as the Heads of Intelligence Agencies Meetings (HIAMs). Both of which were chaired by the Director-General.

Other coordinating roles include the preparation of the Foreign Intelligence Planning Document (FIPD). This analyses the medium and long-term trends in global security and associated judgements of how these will affect Australia’s needs. The draft FIPD is then submitted to the Secretaries Committee on National Security (SCNS). This is comprised of heads of departments and agencies (including those in the AIC) and chaired by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and from there to the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSC) [source].

ONI also plays the main role in drafting the National Collection Requirements (NICRS). These define the main areas upon which the intelligence collectors should focus [source].

As briefly stated, the ONA became the ONI in 2018 following a 2017 Independent Intelligence Review [source].

3.2 The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)

Headquartered in Canberra, ASIO is the only AIC constituent that has both an intelligence collection and intelligence analysis role.

ASIO was established in 1949 during the early stages of the Cold War. Since then, it has functioned under the auspices of the Attorney-General. As such, ASIO was born of fears that Soviet spies had penetrated the Australian government. Viewed thus, one of the ASIO’s major remits, both at its conception and even until today, is counter-intelligence.

3.2.1 The Petrov Affair

During the Cold War, these energies were directed mainly at potential agents from or recruited by the Soviet Union. Australia was a target for Soviet intelligence gathering. The close strategic and intelligence partnerships between Australia, the US, and the UK led the Menzies government to believe that Moscow would attempt to gain access to British and American thinking via Canberra.

Concerns on this front played out in the early 1950s when Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov from the Soviet Ministry of State Security (precursor to the KGB) and posted to the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, defected to Australia. This episode, which many detractors incorrectly argued that the ASIO and government stage-managed, led to a five-year suspension of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Canberra [source].

Vladimir Petrov and Evdokia Petrov inside the safe house in which they were held following their defection to Australia [source].

3.2.2 Royal Commission

The Petrov affair led to a royal commission (at which both Vladimir and Evdokia gave evidence). In turn, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1956 gave statutory recognition to the ASIO.

This Act (coupled with several amendments to the Crimes Act 1914) accorded ASIO the powers to investigate acts of espionage in Australia. Not least, observe nascent terrorist groups among some of the overseas diasporas in Australia. An example was during the 1960s when Australians of Croatian descent formed a collective. In doing so, they traveled to then Yugoslavia with the intention of fomenting internal unrest [source]. In 1972, a bomb planted by Croatian separatists exploded outside the Yugoslav General Trade and Tourist Agency in Sydney. It subsequently wounded 16 people [source].

Terrorism by other groups also came under scrutiny around this time. Especially after a bomb denotated outside Sydney’s Hilton Hotel during the 1978 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, killing three people [source].

3.2.3 A Vulnerability to Political Moods and Influence

In attempting to combat Soviet penetration, ASIO targeted and harassed civilians innocent of any wrongdoing due to their political beliefs. Demonstrating a vulnerability to political moods and influence, ASIO surveyed and monitored the activities of groups. Particularly those whose main activities focused on opposing the policies of the governments of Prime Minister Robert Menzies.

Experts found that members of the opposition Australia Labour Party (ALP), civil rights groups, trade unionists, journalists, and university professors came under scrutiny [source], [source].

Further, political repression intensified in the 1960s when the Menzies government committed Australian troops to the Vietnam War. What started as a low-level social opposition soon evolved into one of the largest mass oppositional social movements in the 1970s.

3.2.4 Murphy Raids

In fact, so suspicious had the ALP become of ASIO that in 1973, the then Attorney-General Lionel Murphy led public raids against ASIO’s headquarters. The ostensible purpose for the ‘Murphy Raids’ was to examine ASIO documents on extremist Croatian groups in Australia. Many of which were highly contemptuous of the Whitlam government and questioned ASIO officers on their ‘preparedness’ for a forthcoming visit to Australia by the Prime Minister of Yugoslavia [source].

In 1974, Whitlam launched the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security to investigate the performance and utility of the AIC. Reforms recommended by the Hope Commission not only sought to modernise the ASIO but also improve:

  • Analytical capabilities
  •  Recruitment through open advertisement
  • More secure dissemination and storage practices
  • Transparent set of ministerial and parliamentary oversight procedures
  • Vigorous security vetting for ASIO officers with access to classified information. (It seems that the ‘Security Divison’ in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal superseded the Security Appeals Tribunal. A source of appeal for any individual who had received a negative security assessment).


3.2.5 Amendments

A subsequent inquiry by Justice Hope following the bombing attack outside Hilton Hotel anointed the ASIO as the agency responsible for national threat assessments in the area of politically inspired violence, including terrorism.

Almost all Royal Commission recommendations were codified into the Australia Security Organisation Act 1979. The Act defines Australia’s security by:

  • Eliminating or reducing the threat of politically motivated violence
  • The fomenting of inter-communal or inter-religious conflicts
  • Attacks on Australia’s defence capabilities
  • Acts of sabotage against critical infrastructure
  • Espionage [source].

Further amendments to the Act in subsequent years included:

  • An added stipulation that the Act in no way limits peaceful political activities
  • Further levels of ministerial and parliamentary review
  • Establishment of an independent office of Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS). To ensure that the ASIO, and the AIC more broadly, operate within the legal thresholds. Not to mention, investigate public complaints against AIC.


Provocatively, under the 1999 Howard Government, further amendments to the Act allowed the ASIO powers to apply to the Attorney-General for awarrant to use tracking devices in order to:

  • Access private computer data
  • Open mail carried by private couriers
  • Run agents against foreign targets. (Up until this stage ASIO used technical tracking devices issued only under warrant).

In 2000, amendments to the Telecommunications (Interception) Act 1979 [source]. These amendments further enhanced ASIO’s access to new communications technology by allowing it to seek warrants that allow the specific targeting of individuals reasonably suspected of posing a potential security risk.

3.3 The Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS)

ASIS assumes primary responsibility for the collection of HUMINT on issues relating to the security of Australia and the promotion of Australian interests overseas.

Reflecting its overseas focus, ASIS is part of the foreign affairs portfolio with the Minister of Foreign Affairs assuming responsibility for the organisation. In 2002, the Service had an estimated 18 stations overseas. Although it is highly probable that it has expanded in the wake of 9/11.

Founded in 1952, the ASIS’s existence remained largely shrouded in secrecy for more than 20 years. Only the Prime Minister and a small cabal of senior officials were aware of its existence. The first mention of the ASIS was in parliament in 1975. However, Malcolm Fraser was the first Prime Minister to formally acknowledge its existence in 2008 [source].

In 1999, Prime Minister Keating established the Commission Inquiry. It recommended that ASIS be placed on a legislative footing. This sought to bring it into line with other agencies of the AIC, providing the basis for a more rigorous set of parliamentary oversight protocols [source].

In brief, the Intelligence Services Act 2001 defines ASIS’ role as the collection of HUMINT intelligence overseas. Although there are also provisions for the government to add its mandate should circumstances arise.

ASIS also has a counter-intelligence role, authorised to investigate attempts by foreign parties to covertly collect information against Australia or Australian interests.

3.4 Australian Signals Directorate (ASD)

The ASD, formerly known as the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) was founded in 1947. It falls under the remit of the Minister for Defence.

ASD grew out of Australia’s attempts to intercept and decode Japanese military communications during World War II. Following the conclusion of the conflict in the Pacific, it became the Defence Signals Bureau (DSB).

It later became DSD in 1978.

In 2013, it assumed its current manifestation. Today, ASD is that component of the AIC with primary responsibility for the collection and analysis of intelligence collected through the interception of foreign communications, known as SIGINT. To service this objective, ASD utilises some of the most advanced and expensive technologies available. Much of which is unavailable commercially [source].

ASD also contains analysts whose job is to interpret the significance of the material collected before it is distributed to other AIC agencies such as ASIO and ONI. SIGINT is distributed strictly on a ‘need-to-know-basis’. As such, agencies with no remit over a certain issue will therefore not receive any SIGINT collected in that field.

ASD is also invested as the principle authority on computer-based and other forms of information communications security. It provides advice in areas such as cryptography.

3.4.1 ASD’s Key Operations

Key operations include the collection of communications intelligence on the following issues

  • Terrorism
  • Transnational crime networks
  • Nuclear proliferation
  • Contentious commercial matters
  • Intercepting communications that assist the Australian Defence Forces in both military operations overseas and in terms of contingency planning for future eventualities

3.5 Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO)

DIO’s genesis traces back to World War II. Established in 19146 as the Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB), it initially coordinated with separate Navy, Army, and Air Force directorates. Later merged in 1970 with the formation of the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO).

In 1977, following the tabling of the third Hope Royal Commission Report, the subsequent establishment of the ONA, the JIO focused on defence-related developments, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.

Following Major General John Baker’s review of its intelligence capabilities, JIP morphed into DIO. It henceforth became the ADF and the Department of Defence’s principal intelligence assessment body.

Its principal role within AIC is to provide assessments of socio-political and economic developments. With probabilistic assessments of how these likely affect ADF operations wherever they might be deployed.

DIO also provides assessments of international developments. With particular attention on the Asia Pacific, and how these dynamics might impact strategic capabilities and potential military tensions even if these tensions might not directly involve Australians.

3.6 Australian Geospatial Organisation (AGO)

Originally conceived as Defence Imagery Geospatial Organisation (DIGO) in 2000, AGO came into effect in 2013.

It is the main provider of strategic imagery intelligence and associated geospatial analysis to the AIC. The imagery covers photographic or digital aerial images. These images are collected mainly via satellites or high-altitude aircraft equipped with highly sensitive imaging technology.

AGO aids the ADF, who rely on imagery to track enemy movements and to calibrate modern weapons systems. It also plays a key role in other areas of interest to fellow members of the AIC include:

  • Possible breaches of nuclear non-proliferation protocols
  • The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
  •  Suspect movement of organised crime or terrorist groups

AGO operates from two sites, one in Bendigo and the other in the Australian Capital Territory. Both sites, as with AGO itself, are administratively part of the Department of Defence.

In late 2005, the Howard government placed then DIGO’s operations under the terms of the Intelligence Services Act 2001. Its functions are specified under s6(b) of the Act.

As with ASD, s15 of the Act obliges the Minister of Defence to issue written rules that regulate the collection, dissemination and retention of intelligence collected on Australian citizens by AGO [source].

4.0 Secondary Agencies and Directorates of Australian Intelligence Community

4.1 The National Intelligence Community

The National Intelligence Community (NIC) encompasses:

  • The Australian Federal Police
  • Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission
  • Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre
  • Australian Border Force

The everyday policing of these agencies often involves illicit narcotic operations, potential terrorist behaviour, people smuggling, and counterfeiting. Indeed, the covert nature of these criminal activities leaves federal and state police forces little option but to maintain their own intelligence capabilities, and in recent years the concept of ‘intelligence-led policing’ has become increasingly important [source].

The same is true of the departments of Immigration and Border Control who also developed limited intelligence collection capabilities. Although in the latter cases, it is more often the case that they are net receivers of intelligence generated by the AIC, the Australian Federal Police or state police forces.

4.1.1 The Australian Federal Police

The Australian Federal Police seal, belonging to the NIC, which is a broader constituent part of the AIC

Whilst not technically part of the AIC, the Australian Federal Police and various State and Territory counterparts therefore all maintain significant intelligence capabilities and work closely with the AIC, but especially the ASIO.

In most instances, the intelligence operations of the NIC operate in a self-contained manner. Especially if the crime under investigation falls within the exclusive domain of State law. However, the increasing mobility of criminal activity, both interstate and internationally, has presaged a growing degree of cooperation between Federal and State agencies.

Since most AIC members are generally precluded from having any policing powers, intelligence operations in areas such as counter-espionage and terrorism necessitate a division of labour between formal AIC agencies and the police.

4.1.2 Division of Labour

Hence, intelligence operations in areas such as counter-espionage and terrorism require a division of labour between formal intelligence agencies and the police. For example, the ASIO’s counter-intelligence branch previously investigated ASIO officer, George Sadil. The Federal Police charged him under breaches of the Crimes Act 1914 and espionage-related offences [source].

AIC-police cooperation was demonstrated through 2004 Operation Pendennis, an investigation involving ASIO, the Federal Police, and State police forces. With its genesis in Melbourne where police were initially alerted to suspicious activities centring on a well-known Muslim cleric Abdul Nacer Benbrika and several of his followers under an operation with the code name ‘Halos’. After information from the community which verified initial concerns posed by members of this group, a joint task force materialised, leading to the arrest of 13 men in Melbourne and another 10 in Syndey [source].

4.1.3 The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC)

In 2016, the Australian Federal Government established the ACIC. It subsumed the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) and CrimTac.

The ACIC has specialist investigative capabilities and delivers and maintains national information sharing systems.

Focus areas include:

  • Drug crime
  • International organised crime groups and gangs.
  • Firearms
  • Emerging threats
  • National Security
  • Cybercrime
  • Financial crime


4.1.4 The Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre

The Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) is an Australian government financial intelligence agency.

It was established in 1989 under the Financial Transaction Reports Act 1988.

Focus areas include:

  • Money laundering
  • Organised crime
  • Tax evasion
  • Welfare fraud
  • Terrorism financing


4.1.5 The Australian Border Force

The Australian Border Force (ABF) is a federal law enforcement agency. It was formed under the Australian Border Force Act 2015 

Focus areas include:

  • Offshore and onshore border enforcement
  • Investigations
  • Compliance
  • Detention operation
  • Customs services

5.0 Equipment

As one might anticipate, details of AIC equipment and technical capabilities are highly secretive.

However, in 1983, the ASIS conducted a botched training exercise at the Melbourne Sheraton Hotel. They did so without the knowledge of either hotel guests or management, the Victoria Police or even the Victoria State government. The exercise was to be a mock surveillance and hostage rescue of foreign intelligence officers from Melbourne’s Sheraton Hotel. During its execution, trainees used considerable force, caused considerable distress, and brandished (unloaded) weapons.

Subsequent reviews from the Hope Commission recommended that ASIS abrogate its right to an ‘attack function’. Not least, its right to carry out ‘special political action’ in foreign countries [source].

As a result, ASIS were no longer provided with guns and the Service’s cache of weapons and explosives was henceforth disposed of [source]. However, the 2004 amendments granted ASIS members small arms weapons of self-defence [source].

6.0 AIC Operations

6.1 A Failure of Intelligence? The case of Bali

Until the terrorist attacks in Bali on 12 October 2002, which killed over 200 people, including 88 Australians, the AIC was generally presumed competent. However, in the wake of the attacks, the AIC became subject to a wave of criticism. Its detractors even viewed the attacks as an outgrowth of a culpable lapse by Australian intelligence agencies [source]. Under the rubric of ‘a failure of intelligence’ – a term popularised in the US to reflect perceived shortcomings by the FBI and CIA in the months leading up to the 9/11 attacks. Some allege that the tragedy in Bali could have been averted had the AIC been better attuned to the machinations of extremist activity in Southeast Asia [source], [source].

High-profile policymakers, including former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and then Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd, were quick to condemn the AIC’s alleged shortcomings [source], [source].

Although the criticism has subsided somewhat in the years since it is not completely dormant. It was instructive, for instance, that the Rudd government elected in 2007 announced it would launch an inquiry into the manner in which several agencies had carried out their duties during the later years of the Howard government [source].

7.0 Future of AIC

In October 2023, Five Eyes member states convened to discuss emerging technological innovation and threats posed by China [source].  As a result, we anticipate that the AIC will eventually seek a dramatic upheaval of its defence architecture. It will allow the AIC to adapt to constantly evolving artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and quantum computing [source].

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