What ONA Does
ONA was created by the passage of the Office of National Assessments Act 1977 (ONA Act) through parliament in late 1977, and commenced operating in early 1978.
The creation of ONA was prompted by a series of recommendations made by Justice Robert Hope, in the third report of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, which was conducted between 1974 and 1977. 26 Justice Hope found that there was a need for a centrally located assessment function placed in the centre of government but indicated that if the assessments were to have value it was important that the judgements contained within them should be genuinely independent.
This view was accepted by the government of the day and as a consequence, while ONA reports directly to the Prime Minister and sits within the Prime Minister’s portfolio, responsibility for the preparation of assessments and day-to-day management issues falls to the Director-General of ONA, who is an independent statutory office holder.
The ONA Act sets two primary functions for the Office: reporting and assessment on matters of political, strategic and economic significance to Australia; and co-ordination and review of Australia’s foreign intelligence activities. ONA produces three principal outputs: printed product, which is its major output, oral briefing for Ministers and officials, and intelligence co-ordination and review, which includes policy co-ordination, requirement setting and performance evaluation.
Further information can be found on the Office of National Assessments website.
ONA, like DIO, was subjected to a more thorough review and analysis by Mr Flood than any of the other AIC agencies. The reason for this close attention was that both are assessment agencies, and the Flood Review was born out of a concern that the assessments of each agency in the period prior to the commencement of hostilities by coalition forces in Iraq in March 2003, may not have been sufficiently independent or robust.
In addition to his review of the assessment work of ONA, Mr Flood also recognised and commented upon the central role that ONA plays in coordinating the activities of Australia’s foreign intelligence agencies.
Although Mr Flood commented favourably on ONA in some respects and commended its record of achievement, he strongly argued that if ONA were to achieve the objectives envisaged by Justice Hope and set for it by government, it should be supported by a stronger legislative mandate and a significant increase in its budget.
Mr Flood made a large number of recommendations either directly or indirectly pertaining to ONA. Each of these recommendations was accepted by the government, with the single exception that ONA be retitled the Australian Foreign Intelligence Assessments Agency. As a consequence, ONA has been more greatly affected by the implementation of Mr Flood’s recommendations than any of the other AIC agencies.
Perhaps the most significant of the recommendations made by Mr Flood, at least in terms of everyday practicalities, was that ONA’s budget and staffing should be effectively doubled in size (from $13.1 million per annum and 74 staff, to $25 million per annum and 145 staff).
Other important recommendations affecting ONA which were either implemented during the reporting period, or set in train, included:
- the creation of a Foreign Intelligence Coordination Committee under the chairmanship of the Director-General of ONA
- amending the ONA Act to strengthen its intelligence community coordination role, and to more accurately reﬂect the focus and work of the National Assessments Board
- ONA giving greater focus to longer term and strategic assessments, and institutionalising measures to ensure that assessments are the product of rigorous testing, challenge and peer review, both within and outside the agency
- the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT’s) Open Source Unit being transferred to ONA, and
- funding in the order of $11 million being provided for physical accommodation, to enable an expanding ONA and ASIO to continue to be collocated.
Three of Mr Flood’s recommendations related directly to increasing the external oversight and accountability of ONA, as follows:
- the mandate of the PJCAAD should be extended to also include ONA, DIO and DIGO
- the mandate of the IGIS should be extended to permit ‘own motion’ inquiries in respect of ONA and DIO, without ministerial referral, and
- the IGIS should conduct a periodic review of ONA’s statutory independence.
The government announced on 22 July 2004 that it had endorsed all of Mr Flood’s recommendations, with the exception of the proposed retitling of ONA.
Subsequent to this announcement, the Director-General of ONA moved quickly to give effect to each of Mr Flood’s recommendations which did not require statutory amendments.
The Foreign Intelligence Coordination Committee proposed by Mr Flood was established very shortly after the government announced its endorsement of Mr Flood’s recommendations. The rapid creation of the FICC was assisted by the fact that it was similar in structure to an existing, albeit less formal forum, namely the Heads of Intelligence Agencies Meetings.
After a brief period of reﬂection on how it should be structured internally, ONA has recruited a significant number of new analysts and supported these recruits with appropriate training and resources. While it will take some time for these recruits to develop the full range of skills necessary to meet the expectations of government, a solid foundation has been laid in a short period of time.
After detailed negotiations with DFAT and the Australian Public Service Commission regarding personnel and funding issues, the Open Source Unit successfully transferred to ONA’s direct control on 1 April 2005.
The vehicle for effecting the various statutory amendments proposed by the Flood Review is the ISLA Bill which was introduced into parliament on 16 June 2005.
As discussed elsewhere in this report, the ISLA Bill is the product of the Flood Review recommendations, and recommendations ﬂowing from a DPMC review of the ISA.
At the conclusion of the reporting period, the PJCAAD had, upon a motion of the Senate, initiated a review of the ISLA Bill with a view to reporting its findings in the spring sittings of parliament.
One of the more significant recommendations made by Mr Flood, at least in terms of accountability arrangements, was that the IGIS should conduct periodic reviews of ONA’s statutory independence.
Mr Flood explained the rationale for this recommendation in the following terms:
"Given the nature of the assessment business, where individuals judgements are a key factor in the final product, and ONA’s direct line of responsibility to the Prime Minister, with the consequent potential for charges of political interference, there is a need for some external process to ensure independence is preserved, and is seen to be so. This relates to the content of what is reported, and to what is not reported.” 27
It is proposed that this recommendation be given effect by amending section 8(3) of the IGIS Act by inserting a new sub-paragraph (c), which will empower the IGIS either at the request of the Prime Minister, or on his own motion, 'to inquire into any matter in relation to the statutory independence of ONA.”
Absent legislative coverage, I did not conduct any processes during the reporting period to formally review ONA’s statutory independence but I did engage in some preliminary discussions with the Director-General on the form this review activity might take in the future.
I have also been provided with access to, and regularly read, various ONA product lines, so that I might position myself to conduct this review activity, should the proposed amendments to the IGIS Act occur.
Given that my office is likely to have a greater interaction with ONA than has previously been the case, I provided a comprehensive briefing to interested ONA staffon the role and functions of my office, and the likely impact of the changes proposed in the Flood Review. This presentation was well attended.
I also present to the AIC common induction course, to which ONA staffare regularly allocated places.
Complaints and Inquiries
The IGIS Act, as it is presently structured, does not allow for the IGIS to pursue (at least in a direct way) complaints about ONA’s activities.
As indicated earlier, Mr Flood has proposed that the IGIS Act be amended to permit the IGIS to conduct inquiries, on his own motion, should he choose to do so. Although such a change would not permit the IGIS to deal directly with complaints, if a complainant were to raise serious issues of concern, it is likely that these would be addressed in the form of an own motion inquiry.
During the reporting period an individual contacted my office with some concerns about the transfer of the Open Source Unit function from DFAT to ONA. These concerns related to background security checking processes.
I initiated a preliminary inquiry to determine the limits on my jurisdiction. Upon being satisfied that I could not formally pursue the matter any further in the form of a formal inquiry, I then took an administrative interest in ensuring that the interests of the individual concerned, and some of that person’s colleagues, were fully appreciated. To this end, I engaged in dialogue with relevant officers in ONA, DFAT and the Australian Public Service Commission and then maintained a watching brief.
I am pleased that an acceptable outcome was achieved for the individual who contacted my office, and that the Open Source Unit successfully transferred to ONA’s control without further concerns being raised with my office.
26 RM Hope, Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, Third Report, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra 1977.
27 Flood, p. 105.