I was not going to speak but I am now apparently. Whilst I have the opportunity to be on my feet, I want to talk about the trip that I have recently returned from in the United States, particularly in light of the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s evidence in front of, I think, the House of Representatives or Senate committee in the US Congress regarding threat level. I thought it was appropriate, given that I have been asked to speak without much notice about that.
Something from my visit that is absolutely critical for Australians to understand is the very close intelligence relationship that exists between our Australian intelligence community and the US intelligence committee. When I travelled to New York and Washington, I had a series of meetings with the FBI in New York, the NYPD in New York, the CIA, ODNI, Homeland Security and the FBI in Washington, and the Congressional oversight committee, which is the house permanent select committee, the homeland security committee and the Department of State—I had several briefings from the state department with respect to intelligence and foreign relations, shall we say.
Whilst being absolutely heartened by the very close relationship that exists in our intelligence community, one thing I gleaned—and it is something that has been germinating for some period time and flagged by former Senator John Faulkner—is the need for our oversight committees to have more remit and reach over our intelligence services.
One of the great checks and balances of the US Congressional system is that they have very powerful committees. The house permanent select committee is a large committee that has oversight over organisations like the CIA, the FBI, ODNI, and key to that is that they have access to operational information. They can subpoena directors of intelligence agencies, if they do not turn up. They can have access to a lot of information, and I think that operates as an essential check and balance against the power of the executive.
We have a wonderful committee. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is very well served by both sides of parliament as a bipartisan committee, but I think it is time—notwithstanding some of the incremental changes that have been made in this modern age when we have people leaking information like Snowden—for the public to be reassured and for the intelligence agencies to be protected. What we need is this committee to evolve with modern times to be given powers that the public want and deserve; make sure that we oversight our intelligence agencies properly; and offer the intelligence agencies the protection they need.