History of the Australian Intelligence Community

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History of the Australian Intelligence Community

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.

Events TimelineEvent Timelines

Australia and International Events since 1978

Since its creation in 1978, the Office of National Assessments has analysed major events both international and domestic. The timeline below serves to illustrate some of the major events that it has assessed since its inception.


Events Timeline81.49 KB

AIC TimelineAustralian Intelligence Community Timeline

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


Australian Intelligence Community Timeline303.84 KB