A Short History of the Office of National Assessments

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A Short History of the Office of National Assessments

ONA is the only intelligence assessment agency in the world with statutory independence protecting the integrity of its analysis. We owe this to Justice Robert Hope, whose first Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security (1974-77) recommended the formation of an independent agency to provide 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

We began operations on 20 February 1978. The inaugural Director-General Robert Furlonger (1977-81) was a former Ambassador to Indonesia and head of the old Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO). The creation of ONA saw it assume JIO's foreign intelligence assessment role, fulfilling the Hope Royal Commission's recommendation that intelligence analysis should take place outside policy departments. Furlonger was determined that ONA would be a broad, outwardly engaged and intellectually curious organisation.

Michael Cook, our second Director-General, cemented ONA's place in government during the last decade of the Cold War. With a fierce intellect and a firm leadership style, Cook went on to be Australia's Ambassador to the USA.

In the second Hope Royal Commission (1983-84), Justice Hope recognised that ONA had proven itself as an impartial producer of intelligence assessments. He also recommended the establishment of the National Intelligence Committee (now the National Intelligence Coordination Committee) to advise the Director-General on the Government's intelligence priorities and assist in the programming of ONA's analytical work.

At the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1990, ONA was operating under the direction of Geoffrey Miller (1989-95). The 1990s posed many challenges for analysts working on developments in the Middle East (particularly Iraq), in Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Yugoslav Wars, and concerning Australia's commitments to United Nations' peacekeeping efforts throughout the world. The late 1990s saw the appointments of Philip Flood (1995–96), Richard J. Smith (1996–98) and Kim Jones (1998–2003) as Directors-General.

Philip Flood's 2004 inquiry into the effectiveness of Australia's intelligence apparatus recommended that ONA be doubled in size and its mandate to coordinate and evaluate Australia's foreign intelligence activities be strengthened. The appointment of Peter Varghese (2004–09) as Director-General coincided with the expansion of ONA's staffing to its current level of about 150. At the same time, the collection and analysis of open source intelligence became one of ONA's core functions.ONA History

The scope of ONA's work has continued to broaden to meet the needs of government in the 21st century. We've striven to anticipate emerging issues and risks — ONA first wrote about climate change in 1981. Big data now poses new challenges for all parts of government, but none more so than intelligence. We'll keep finding innovative ways to fulfil ONA's mission: to strengthen Australia's capacity to act in the world in ways that advance our interests and the values we support.

Under Allan Gyngell (2009–13), we moved into our own purpose-built office after thirty years housed within Defence facilities and then ASIO's headquarters. Opened by Prime Minister Gillard on 5 December 2011, the new building was named after Justice Hope.

ONA reports released under the Open Access program are available through the National Archives.