Developing a national threat assessment for Australia

| November 3, 2021

In a previous article, I talked about Australia’s changed threat environment and recommended that the government produce a national threat assessment with both classified and publicly accessible versions. In this follow-up, I’ll focus on what the process for developing such an assessment would look like.

The benchmark for a national threat assessment is set by the US’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Notably, the leadership and enterprise management role of Australia’s Office of National Intelligence (ONI) was modelled on the US office.

The release of the US intelligence community’s annual threat assessment is always keenly anticipated. Like the ones before it, the 2021 report is an ‘all threats’ assessment and includes foreign threats such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, as well as transnational threats such as terrorism, cyberattacks, pandemics, climate change and organised crime. (It shouldn’t surprise anyone that China is clearly identified as the US’s most significant threat.)

It is a whole-of–US intelligence community threat assessment that is written as an all-source classified document, then declassified for public release. It’s also accompanied by the public testimony of the director of national intelligence at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. While the 2021 unclassified document is only 27 pages, the US government also ensures that it’s readily digestible for time-poor or alternate learners by making a graphics-based version available.

An Australian equivalent process would be for the director-general of national intelligence to lead an annual whole-of–national intelligence community (NIC) process by developing an all-source classified national threat assessment for delivery to the prime minister and the cabinet’s National Security Committee for them to then develop national security strategy and risk assessments.

This document would then be ‘sanitised’ and made unclassified so it could be tabled in parliament by the prime minister and be presented by the director-general of national intelligence as public testimony on the threats Australia faces to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

It would also be posted on ONI’s website for public access (there are currently no intelligence assessments on the agency’s public website). It’s important that this process be, and be seen to be, apolitical and be accompanied by a public information campaign.

A publicly releasable national threat assessment would ensure the public understands all the threats to Australia’s national security, not just the threat from China, and therefore why the government devotes the resources it does to the departments of Defence and Home Affairs and the NIC.

Currently, if you want to know about threats to Australia, other than the domestic threats of terrorism, espionage and cybercrime, you must go to a US document and translate them to an Australian viewpoint, or rely on think tanks, academia or the media to do it for you with all the attendant risks.

How to make an all-source classified national threat assessment unclassified for public release? Well, not all intelligence collected by the NIC, and the Australian Defence Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability on its behalf, is classified to begin with. Indeed, much of it is already drawn from publicly available information sources which is then fused with information collected through secret means.

Open-source intelligence, or OSINT, is already a key collection and analysis discipline—just like signals, human and geospatial intelligence—and has much to offer the national threat assessment process.

Within government, ONI already operates the Open Source Centre, which ‘collects, interprets and disseminates information relating to matters of political, strategic or economic significance to Australia’. Outside government, there are several commercial providers that already work closely with government by providing OSINT products and services.

On the more technical side of things, space-based imagery collection is also no longer the sole remit of government. Commercial vendors now operate satellites capable of capturing high-quality unclassified imagery by night and day in all weather. Radio-frequency transmissions—effectively open-source signals intelligence—are also collected by several commercial satellite operators.

Think tanks and online investigators already very effectively use these commercial sources to support their work, so why not the NIC in the development of the public version of the national threat assessment?

So, because OSINT is already used in agencies’ intelligence processes and products, a good proportion of the classified national threat assessment will already actually be unclassified. The next part of the process will be sanitising secret sources and methods down to unclassified.

Basically, when sanitising secret intelligence, NIC analysts will be able to use publicly available information and OSINT from a variety of sources and methods as a guide as to what is and is not classified and then make conscious decisions about what to include in the public version and what to keep secret. In addition, not all of the detailed ‘evidence’ needs to be made public; sometimes only the broad assessment will be made public because the evidence can’t be.

A move towards developing an annual, apolitical, publicly available national threat assessment, rather than ad hoc speeches and ‘announceables’ made by officials and politicians, would both inform and focus the public. This process would normalise the strategic threat conversation and hopefully reduce the media hype that tends to accompany such announcements. The assessment would be developed by intelligence professionals and delivered to the public through the parliament and its committee processes.

While a national threat assessment should go hand in hand with an ‘all hazards’ national security strategy, which Australia last produced in 2013, this is a separate but important debate. It needs to be stated, however, that a national threat assessment is not reliant on a national security strategy, though a national security strategy would be reliant on a national threat assessment.

An annual all-threats assessment process that produces both classified and unclassified threat assessments for Australians by Australians will enable the Australian public to be properly informed of the significant 1930s- and 1940s-like changes in Australia’s strategic environment—and prepare accordingly.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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