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Role of the Inspector-General

Vivienne Thom

Dr Vivienne Thom

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) is an independent statutory office holder who reviews the activities of the agencies which collectively comprise the Australian Intelligence Community (AIC). The IGIS has own motion powers in addition to considering complaints from members of the public or requests from ministers.

There are currently six intelligence and security agencies which form the AIC, namely:

  • Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO)
  • Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS)
  • Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation (DIGO)
  • Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO)
  • Defence Signals Directorate (DSD)
  • Office of National Assessments (ONA)

The office was formally established by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Act 1986 (IGIS Act) and commenced operating on 1 February 1987.

The Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (OIGIS) is situated within the Prime Minister’s portfolio and reports to the Special Minister of State for the Public Service and Integrity for administrative purposes.

As an independent statutory office holder, the IGIS is not subject to general direction from the Prime Minister, the Special Minister of State for the Public Service and Integrity, or other Ministers on how responsibilities under the IGIS Act should be carried out.

The role and functions of the IGIS are set out in sections 8, 9 and 9A of the IGIS Act. These sections provide the legal basis for the IGIS to conduct regular inspections of the AIC agencies and to conduct inquiries, of varying levels of formality, as the need arises.

The overarching purpose of these activities is to ensure that each AIC agency acts legally and with propriety, complies with ministerial guidelines and directives, and respects human rights.

The majority of the resources of the office are directed towards on-going inspection and monitoring activities, so as to identify issues, including about the governance and control frameworks within agencies, before there is a requirement for major remedial action.

The inspection role of the IGIS is complemented by an inquiry function. In undertaking inquiries the IGIS has strong investigative powers, akin to those of a royal commission.

The focus of inquiries which were conducted under the authority of the IGIS Act were generally limited to the activities of the six AIC agencies from the date when the IGIS Act first took effect (that is 1 February 1987) until 23 November 2010.

The IGIS Act was amended with effect from 24 November 2010. Section 9 now provides that the Prime Minister may request the IGIS to inquire into an intelligence or security matter relating to any Commonwealth agency, not just matters relating to an intelligence agency. Further details on the practical effects of this amendment are provided in the General Matters and Parliament and Legislation chapters of this report.

All inquiries which are pursued under the authority of the IGIS Act are conducted in private because they almost invariably involve highly classified or sensitive information, and the methods by which it is collected. The public ventilation of this material could be potentially harmful to those persons involved in its collection, or compromise collection methodologies, neither of which would serve the national interest.

The role and functions of the IGIS are an important part of the overall accountability framework to which the AIC agencies are subject. While the focus of the IGIS is on the operational activities of the AIC agencies, the agencies are also subject to review by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), as well as the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO).

Certain ASIO assessments can be appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). Proceedings can also be instituted against AIC agencies in the Courts.

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