Australia's intelligence agencies have made a distinctive, although often secret, contribution to our nation's history, helping safeguard the country during peace and war. How the National Intelligence Community looks and works today reflects the journey we have travelled to become an effective, accountable and integrated enterprise that still reflects the rich heritage and independence of individual agencies.
History of Australia’s intelligence agencies
Intelligence has played a role in protecting Australia and Australians since Federation. The story of our national intelligence effort is one of continuous adaptation and evolution in response to changes to Australia's strategic environment, our society and government expectations.
In our first decades as a nation, intelligence efforts were largely focused on counter-espionage and security matters. During the second world war, our intelligence capabilities expanded. New forms of signals intelligence, clandestine operations in occupied territory and strategic military assessments all made critical contributions to our national defence and broader Allied military efforts.
The intelligence community we have today began to take shape in the late 1940s and early 1950s with the establishment of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and the organisations that would go on to become the Australian Signals Directorate, the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Federal Police.
Since the 1970s, intelligence agencies have become more open, accountable and collegiate in their work. Thanks to a landmark series of reviews and reforms, all Australian intelligence agencies have been publicly acknowledged by the government, opened to extensive independent oversight and provided with additional capabilities and resources to enable them to respond to the dramatic changes we have seen in our security and strategic environment in recent decades.
In 2017, the latest of these reviews led to the formal creation of the National Intelligence Community as it exists today and the establishment of the Office of National Intelligence. You can learn more about how the National Intelligence Community now works together.
External reviews and inquiries on espionage and intelligence
Over the last fifty years, the demands on Australia’s intelligence community have evolved markedly. This precipitated a number of reviews of the community as a whole. These have included two Hope Royal Commissions (1974-77 and 1984), the 2004 Flood Inquiry, the 2011 Independent Review of the Intelligence Community and the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review.
The National Archives of Australia has further information on the history of Australia’s intelligence and security.