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Academic work gives national security an intelligent edge

By Anthony Bergin

The government recently announced what Malcolm Turnbull described as the most “significant reform of Australia’s national intelligence and domestic security arrangements” in more than 40 years.

A home affairs ministry is being created that includes parts of Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. It will act as a portfolio agency for ASIO, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Border Force, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, and the Office of Transport Security.

The government also announced that the Office of National Assessments would be expanded into an Office of National Intelligence. ONI will take on a stronger leadership role of the intelligence community, with the agency’s director-general analogous to the US director of national intelligence in function.

With this shake-up, it’s timely to ask: what do our national security policymakers and intelligence community need, and what would they like, from academic research? How can academic research help security policymakers and the intelligence community understand the national security issues the government may face?

Universities have been slow to change their reward incentives to support greater academic collaboration between security scholars and government. Many academics dislike national security, with its connotations of force and violence and “securitisation” of their research. But academics can offer independent depth of expertise to answer specific questions based on long-term specialisation, such as in area studies, or in particular scientific fields that one doesn’t find much of in government. That can help to inform policy thinking.

More important, academics can help our national security policymakers with frameworks to help them understand an issue. Because policymakers spend much of their time dealing with the latest bushfire, they simply don’t have time to stand back and think about the bigger picture. The provision of context and a framework, if it’s thoughtful, can last longer than the answer to the specific question.

Through their research, academics can alert our security policymakers and intelligence community to likely security developments. Security scholars could help to answer questions on the stability of a government or what might happen if a country were to change its leadership.

Academics are good at looking at how political beliefs or ideology may affect violence. Academic research is helpful in looking at how a state’s capabilities or plans may be changing with respect to another state or how a state sees its strategic position in the region or the world.

Government officials tend to move around in positions. They may have only the latest file on an issue open in front of them. When the unexpected happens, policy­makers seek advice from a wider range of sources. Academics often can give useful history about how previous officials or other agencies have addressed an issue.

Academic research is useful in identifying and measuring threats, whether political, cyber, terrorist or military, as well as how, when and to what end a threat would hurt Australian interests. Academic research on issues such as globalisation, technology trends and demographic shifts helps our national security leaders understand the strategic environment.

Academic research, if it’s any good, will show up what factors don’t matter when it comes to having an impact on national security. That’s important so limited government resources can be focused appropriately. But let’s not be naive. Sometimes government national security research is commissioned from academics to prove an established position.

Academics can help shape policy thinking in parliament, an important function given the public service is largely out of bounds for the opposition, minor parties and backbenchers. A better informed parliament helps to sharpen the public service’s accountabilities in national security.

At the moment there are some exchanges between academics and national security policymakers on specific issues but it would be useful to step up and regularise that interchange — to the benefit of both sides. The government’s recent review of Australia’s intelligence community recommended the creation of a national intelligence innovation hub to develop a more systematic and substantive outreach program, including with academics. There will always be some limits here due to secrecy and a culture that emphasises discretion, but it would be good if our national security agencies explain better their needs when it comes to academic research.

The government’s new home affairs department should have a specific research function built into it, given the vulnerabilities and emerging threats it would have to face. This would be another step along the path to a substantial and self-contained domestic security department. It should engage with academic researchers. Last year the US Department of Homeland Security signed a five-year $US500 million contract with Rand to supply security-related research.

But right now our national security policymakers have little knowledge of scholarly work that may assist them. They don’t typically see universities as a key source of policy advice.

It’s useful for government to have lively debates about policy issues, and academics help to challenge groupthink and force the public service to be better: no one department or agency has the monopoly on intelligent thinking about policy.

But national security decision-makers have government departments and think tanks already giving them more than they can read. Australia’s security scholars must be realistic: our national security policy leaders are already trying to drink from the fire hose in relation to information flows.

Anthony Bergin is a senior research fellow at the Australian National University’s National Security College and a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Originally published by: The Australian on 23 Aug 2017