History of Office of National Assessments

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History of Office of National Assessments

The impetus to create ONA came after the first Hope Royal Commission (1974-77) recommended setting up an independent agency to provide national intelligence assessments on political, strategic and economic issues directly to the Prime Minister. ONA was established by the Office of National Assessments Act 1977.

Robert Hope Image
Justice Robert Hope
NAA: A12386, EO/1/2

ONA began operations on 20 February 1978 with a staff of 55, including some 35 analysts. Our first Director-General was Robert Furlonger (1977-81), who was a former diplomat and Director of the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO)-the intelligence assessments arm of the Department of Defence. The creation of ONA saw the transfer of this responsibility, thus fulfilling one of the recommendations of the Hope Royal Commission to produce national assessments outside the policy-making departments. ONA was also charged with the responsibility of monitoring and coordinating Australia's foreign intelligence activities.

ONA has always been at the forefront of providing analytical assessments on global issues and trends that affect Australia. Since its creation ONA has advised the Government across a broad range of themes. In its formative years, and under the direction of our second Director-General Michael Cook (1981-89), ONA cut its teeth on analysing future Soviet and Chinese policies, communism in Europe, the flow of boat people from Southeast Asia, peacekeeping in Africa, developments in the Middle East and Australia's stake in Antarctica.

By the time of the second Hope Royal Commission (1983-84), ONA had established itself as an independent and robust intelligence agency within the Australian Government.  Justice Hope recognised the important work of ONA but recommended the establishment of the National Intelligence Committee (now the National Intelligence Coordination Committee) to advise the Director-General on the Government's needs for intelligence and the programming of ONA's analytical work, with particular emphasis on producing more national assessments.

At the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1990, ONA was operating with a staff of 80 under the direction of Geoffrey Miller (1989-95) who had succeeded Cook as Director-General. The 1990s posed many challenges for intelligence assessment analysts working on developments, not only in Iraq, but also in Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Yugoslav Wars, and Australia's commitment to the United Nations' peacekeeping efforts in Western Sahara, Cambodia, Bougainville, Haiti, Rwanda and Mozambique, and support of peacekeeping operations into the new century. The late-1990s also saw the appointments of Philip Flood (1995-96), Richard J. Smith (1996-98) and Kim Jones (1998-2003) as Director-General.

The September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 marked a significant turning point for intelligence analysts. The rise of terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah and the threats they pose to national security presented the Australian Government with a new set of challenges on top of the perennial issues of weapons proliferation, refugees and unstable governments. Some of these issues have been the subject of formal inquiries and have involved ONA in some shape or form, particularly the inquiries on the children overboard affair, the 2002 Bali bombings, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the Cole inquiry into Australian companies involved in the Oil-For-Food program.

ONA HistoryIn 2004 the Government established an inquiry into the effectiveness of the Australian intelligence agencies by Mr Philip Flood. Flood made a number of wide-ranging recommendations to improve the accountability and management of the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC), two of which had a direct impact on ONA, including expanding the size of the agency and strengthening its mandate to coordinate and evaluate Australia's foreign intelligence activities. The appointment of Peter Varghese (2004-09) as Director-General coincided with the implementation of Flood's recommendations and the expansion of ONA's staffing to 150. This expansion was also the result of the establishment of an Open Source Branch (now Open Source Centre) in 2005 to provide open-source analysis and reporting to support our production of intelligence assessments.

ONA's work continues to broaden to meet the intelligence needs of the Australian government in the twenty-first century, particularly in relation to terrorism, cyber security, transnational crime, climate change and the global economy.