When it comes to government accountability, intelligence agencies present a special case. Ordinarily, government departments are subject to robust scrutiny from a variety of sources. The classification of national security information and exemptions from freedom of information (FOI) legislation mean that media and public scrutiny of intelligence agencies can be superficial at best. The fact that public, judicial, and parliamentary scrutiny of Australia’s intelligence agencies is severely constrained means that the executive branch takes on a particularly important role in holding these agencies to account. The key conceptual and practical problem with executive oversight of intelligence agencies is that the relevant accountability mechanisms — including statutory officeholders, royal commissions, and administrative tribunals — are part of the same arm of government to which the intelligence agencies belong. Executive oversight mechanisms therefore play an important but also potentially problematic role in keeping intelligence agencies accountable.
Given this, the aim of this chapter is to assess whether executive oversight of the Australian intelligence agencies is robust, stringent, and effective. It considers whether there are any gaps or vulnerabilities in this system of executive accountability, and whether stronger powers or other improvements are needed to further counterbalance the limited public, judicial, and parliamentary scrutiny of intelligence agencies.