Release of records of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security

A background to the history and recordkeeping of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security (1974–77), also known as the Hope Royal Commission.

Dr Jim Stokes of the National Archives of Australia presented this talk on the occasion of the public release of records of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security (RCIS).

The written paper that appears below is based on Dr Stokes' speaking notes. It is not a word-for-word transcript of the audio recording of his talk.

The background

The Australian security and intelligence agencies of the mid-1970s were significantly different from those of today. The only agency of which most Australians were aware was the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), which had achieved prominence in the 1950s with the defection of the Petrovs and the subsequent Royal Commission on Espionage. ASIO’s main targets were the Communist Party and other organisations believed to have Communist links and its relationship with sections of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was at best uneasy.

The other three agencies were almost unknown to the general public. The Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) and the Defence Signals Division (DSD) were located deep within the Defence Department. JIO used covert and published sources to produce strategic assessments, while DSD intercepted foreign electronic communications from a network of stations operated by the armed forces. DSD’s functions were still not acknowledged officially, although its existence had come to public notice over the withdrawal from the Singapore intercept station in 1973. Lastly there was the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), which was not acknowledged officially, although it too had attracted media speculation in the early 1970s. ASIS undertook covert intelligence gathering outside Australia and was responsible to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The establishment of the RCIS

Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister in December 1972 with a commitment to review the operation of the security and intelligence agencies. This commitment was focused mainly on ASIO and to some extent also on ASIS.

Relations between the ALP and the intelligence community were further strained by the so-called ‘Murphy raid’ on ASIO offices in Canberra and Melbourne in March 1973. There was also controversy in 1974 over the provision of ASIO political briefing material to selected journalists.

But RCIS was not solely a product of tensions between the Whitlam government and ASIO. There were significant issues about the structure, priorities and funding of the agencies that any government would have had to face sooner or later. With ASIO there were immediate issues about morale and security. Above all there was a long history of ministerial ignorance and indifference towards security and intelligence issues.

Once the 1974 double dissolution was out of the way Whitlam turned his attention to the review. On 21 August 1974 the Governor-General appointed Mr Justice Robert Marsden Hope as Royal Commissioner. Hope was a Judge of the NSW Supreme Court and Court of Appeal and he had been President of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties. Hope had recently completed an inquiry into the national estate, which paved the way for Commonwealth heritage legislation. George Brownbill, from the Prime Minister’s Department, was Secretary to the RCIS and he also acted as counsel assisting Hope.

RCIS was housed with tight security in West Block offices in Canberra. Hope was also given custody of the records of the Petrov Royal Commission. Hope conducted extensive public and private hearings and he also visited many countries with which Australia had intelligence contacts. He gathered a mass of information relating to the agencies and he spoke with many of their present and former employees. He also heard from people and organisations with a range of concerns about the agencies, including some who felt that their lives had been seriously affected by security decisions.

The records

The centrepiece of the records is the final reports, about which I’ll say more shortly.

However the reports themselves drew on some 2000 supporting files. Many of these files can now be released, but some include information relating to intelligence targeting, operations and relationships that are still relevant today. The National Archives has worked with the relevant agencies to determine what can now be released. Many of the files have required multiple referrals within Australia and overseas.

It was always clear that the examination of the supporting files would take longer than the examination of the reports themselves. We therefore decided that once the reports were ready for release we would do so, together with all those supporting files on which final decisions had been made. The present position is that decisions have been completed on around half of the supporting files and examination of the remainder will continue over the coming year. Titles of all files on which decisions have been completed may be accessed via the National Archives website, together with the released portions of the reports and a small selection of the supporting files. We have also prepared a selected list of items which we believe will be of particular interest.

Where material has been found to require continued exemption from public release the relevant folios have been removed from the files for secure storage. If any portion of a folio can be released a photocopy of it has been provided.

The Archives has also withheld some information on personal sensitivity grounds, mostly in cases where witnesses who are still living provided intimate personal detail in the course of explaining their grievances about the agencies.

The appeal provisions of the Archives Act may be used to challenge any of the exemptions. National Archives Access & Information Services staff can provide information about this process.

The reports

Hope recognised that much of the information in his reports could not be released publicly, at least for many years. Where possible he divided his reports into publishable and non publishable portions. Much of the material that was withheld 30 years ago is now being released, although there is still some exempt material, particularly in relation to ASIS and DSD.

The first two reports were presented to the Governor-General in March 1976. The First Report dealt briefly with procedural issues. The Second Report dealt with the security checking of Commonwealth employees. Hope and his staff examined hundreds of ASIO files on people who had received qualified or adverse assessments and he found that in some cases the assessment may have been wrong. He recommended the establishment of a security appeals tribunal to provide a right of review.

The Third Report dealt with intelligence coordination machinery. Hope found many deficiencies in the status, control and performance of the intelligence function. The agencies did not have an assured place in government and they received little interest or direction from ministers. Their position was complicated by excessive secrecy and by the fact that ASIO, ASIS and DSD were all based in Melbourne, which left them remote from Canberra. Above all there was a lack of clear direction on intelligence targets and priorities.

Hope’s recommendations included the establishment of a permanent heads committee on intelligence and security, which would set clear priorities and report to a committee of relevant ministers. Hope was concerned that the existing assessment process was unduly dominated by the interests of Defence and Foreign Affairs, to the detriment of the economic departments. He therefore recommended that much of JIO should be transferred to a new national assessment agency located within the Prime Minister’s Department, a proposal that was vigorously opposed by Defence.

The Fourth Report dealt with ASIO. Hope’s criticisms of ASIO were scathing, although he noted that the situation had improved since the appointment of Mr Justice Edward Woodward as director-general in March 1976. Hope’s relationship with ASIO began badly when it became apparent that some senior staff were deliberately withholding information and discouraging other staff from talking to him. Hope made it clear that he had the right to talk to anyone about anything and he was satisfied with ASIO cooperation in the later stages of the inquiry.

Hope found fundamental problems with ASIO, many of them flowing from a lack of effective leadership. ASIO management was capricious, hierarchical and driven by the views and prejudices of senior staff. Some staff were too close to political groups. Morale, internal communication and recordkeeping were poor and gossip and cliques thrived. Staff conditions were also poor and there was evidence of victimisation, nepotism and favouritism. There were many capable junior and middle ranking officers, but they were frustrated by their working environment and by the failings of those above them.

Operationally ASIO’s priorities were misdirected. Most of its resources were targeted against the various communist parties and other radical and protest groups, to a point that Hope believed was beyond what was justified on security grounds. Conversely ASIO had devoted meagre and unsophisticated resources to the strong and growing presence of Soviet Bloc intelligence officers in Australia. ASIO was also hindered by long-standing animosity with the Commonwealth Police and by weaknesses in its own internal security.

The Fifth Report dealt with ASIS. Hope found that most of the information that Australia needed could be collected by diplomats and journalists or through signals interception, but there were still ‘hard’ targets that could be approached only by clandestine human means. He recommended that ASIS expand its geographical cover, its collection of economic intelligence and its counter-intelligence function. He also recommended that ASIS retain a small special operations capability.

Hope found that ASIS was ‘a singularly well-run and well-managed agency’ with strong morale and professionalism. However it suffered from the restrictions of a 1958 ministerial directive, which imposed what he called ‘a bizarre mixture of great and small constraints’. The directive had been intended to remedy a lack of control over ASIS operations, but the result had been to subject ASIS to the control of the Department of Foreign Affairs rather than its minister. The problem was compounded by mutual antagonism and mistrust between ASIS and Foreign Affairs staff.

Hope believed that Foreign Affairs control had made ASIS too cautious and discouraged it from exploiting intelligence opportunities. He did not accept that Foreign Affairs should have full knowledge of all ASIS activities and he urged that the Director of ASIS should have the right to meet the Minister for Foreign Affairs without the secretary of the department necessarily being present. He also recommended that the government acknowledge the existence of ASIS and give it a statutory basis.

The last three reports went to the Governor-General in April 1977, bringing the work of RCIS to an end. The Sixth Report dealt with the DSD, which Hope found was a very capably managed agency with a strong team spirit. He found that DSD’s signals intelligence and communications security functions were valuable and that Australia benefited greatly from DSD’s close involvement in the five nation signals intelligence community. However DSD was too subordinate to the overall Defence structure, which left it open to arbitrary budget cuts and administrative interference. Hope recommended that DSD be acknowledged publicly and given a statutory charter.

The Seventh Report contained a history of the Australian security and intelligence services written for RCIS by Dr Jacqueline Templeton of Melbourne University. The Eighth Report set out Hope’s concerns for the records accumulated by RCIS, which he recommended should be preserved for eventual public release.

Hope's legacy

The Australian security and intelligence community of today is very much a product of Hope’s vision in RCIS and in a second royal commission that he undertook for the Hawke government in 1983–84. The Fraser government implemented some of Hope’s recommendations quite quickly. The Office of National Assessments (ONA) was established in 1977 within the prime minister’s portfolio, although Defence defeated Hope’s recommendation that the new agency should incorporate much of JIO. Legislation in 1979 set out ASIO’s powers and obligations more adequately and the Security Appeals Tribunal was established in 1980.

Fraser officially acknowledged the existence of ASIS in 1977 and the three Melbourne agencies later moved to Canberra. ASIS and DSD finally received statutory recognition in 2001. The Fraser government improved auditing arrangements for the agencies and established a permanent heads committee and a Cabinet committee to coordinate and oversee their work.  The office of Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security was established in 1987 and a parliamentary committee on ASIO in 1988. The committee now covers all the agencies.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019