Rachel Noble has been the director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate since February. Prior to this, she was the head of ASD's Australian Cyber Security Centre. She is the first female D-G of an Australian intelligence agency.
Her presentation at the National Security College on Tuesday, titled Long Histories - Short Memories: The Transparently Secret ASD in 2020, was one of a series of presentations by intelligence agency heads intended to demystify their agencies, promote transparency, and encourage talented young Australians to view intelligence employment as a desirable career path (Rachel has a master's of business administration in technology management and a bachelor of science with honours).
In 2020, ASD is charged by government to fulfil three core missions: generate foreign signals intelligence (or SIGINT), protect Australia from cyber threats, and conduct cyber offensive operations. Another important role is promoting cyber security in Australia's public and private sectors.
Conspiracy advocates will no doubt claim the public presentation was intended to prepare the way for ASD to gain more intrusive powers. In April 2018, Canberra journalist Annika Smethurst published a leaked SECRET AUSTEO Defence Department Ministerial Submission "to inform [the Defence Minister] of proposals from the Home Affairs portfolio for further legislative changes [to the Intelligence Services Act 2001] to enable ASD to better support Home Affairs priorities".
This created public concern that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was trying to circumvent the current system (whereby ASD can provide support to judicially oversighted AFP and ASIO domestic activities). Ms Smethurst's story alleged it would allow the ministers for Defence and Home Affairs to authorise a warrant for ASD to undertake onshore actions without judicial oversight.
Rachel Noble came across as personable and enthusiastic about her staff. While much of what she said is already on the public record if you know where to look, she had some interesting asides about her own career. She was working in Melbourne for Optus when her sister sent her a job ad for the Defence Signals Directorate (the forerunner to ASD). She applied for and won the job, but then had to wait nine months for her security clearance to come through. At the time it would have been a TOPSECRET PV clearance.
In the past, our intelligence agencies lost many good applicants not prepared to wait for up to a year for a TS PV clearance when other interesting jobs were available. She said that to get successful applicants through the door more quickly, ASD can now employ people on lower-level clearances, depending on what work they are going to be doing.
Rachel started off as a DSD "code breaker" in the early 1990s. She did not enjoy that work, but steadily progressed through the ranks of DSD and the Commonwealth Public Service to reach her present position. During her 30-year career, she has worked in various Defence jobs and in the departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Immigration and Border Protection, and Home Affairs. This is now the expected national security career progression for aspirants to head-of-agency positions.
Today's ASD is a very different organisation to the one I joined on a two-year posting as commander of the army component in Melbourne in 1977. I completed the technical training courses, which included encryption and decryption, but most of my work involved resource management. I found DSD's senior managers to be generally conservative and inflexible. In the 1970s they had deep concerns that a future left-wing Labor government would create problems for DSD by closing down some of our alliance activities.
The organisation has changed significantly over the years with a series of more enlightened D-Gs, particularly since DSD moved to Canberra in 1991.
One of our "unofficial" relationships in Melbourne was with the Special Operations Group of the Victoria Police. They would often bring us encrypted criminal communications, which our decrypters could usually decipher during their lunchtime. This was before Commonwealth cost-recovery policies undermined that kind of informal co-operation.
In public-service speak, the organisation has gone from being a bureau in 1947, to a branch in 1949, to a division in 1964, to a directorate in 1978 - reflecting its growing bureaucratic importance. It also went from being the Defence Signals Directorate to the Australian Signals Directorate in 2013, and became an independent statutory agency with enhanced cyber capabilities in 2018.
The most important development in ASD's history was joining the UKUSA Agreement in 1948 - a SIGINT partnership between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US known as "Five Eyes". Five Eyes is effectively an intelligence burden-sharing arrangement, but the US provides the lion's share of resources and product (the US sister agency to ASD, the National Security Agency, has at least 40,000 staff, compared with ASD's 2000).
Five Eyes is the world's most powerful and enduring intelligence alliance; it remains essential to Australia's national security.
The role of ASD will continue to evolve and there will be further cyber-blurring of what constitutes external and internal threats, but in the domestic context it remains important for ASD to be legally accountable and oversighted by people who understand the seductive power of modern information collection. A recent Australia Institute report suggests that oversight of Australia's intelligence agencies is weaker than comparative arrangements in other Five Eyes countries.
- Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law.