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The most powerful word

By Bill Calcutt - posted Friday, 28 June 2013

A fundamental tenet of democracy is that the state derives its legitimacy and authority by representing the will of the people.  With a mandate derived through democratic elections, governments enact laws that are meant to reflect the rules and values of the broader community.  At the heart of representative democracy are the principles of transparency and accountability, allowing the community to examine how government processes work and to hold individuals and organisations responsible for their decisions and actions.  Public servants are likewise held to explicit legal, ethical and performance standards.

The requirements for government transparency and accountability are compromised when it comes to national security matters, ostensibly because the “first duty of government” is to safeguard the nation’s security and protect its citizens.  Government actions undertaken under the aegis of national security are often secret in order to maintain the advantage of forewarning (of prospective threats) obtained from technical capabilities and sensitive sources.  Ministers routinely decline to answer questions about national security matters on the basis of sensitivity. 

Democratic states recognise the delicate balance between national security and civil liberties, and in Australia various statutory oversight bodies report publicly on the legality and efficacy of national security agencies’ operations.  The government is also committed to determining national security priorities through the application of a rigorous risk management process.  Such a process aims to estimate and objectively determine the probability and consequences of various threats that are ranked according to their potential harm, ensuring government actions are necessary and proportionate.  While the risk of adverse events cannot be completely eliminated they can be mitigated through pre-emptive action. 


The terrorism attacks on 9/11 have dramatically and permanently transformed the national security environment and the scope of the secret state.  The government’s initially militaristic response to the threat of fundamentalist terrorism (that seeks to engender fear through mass-casualty attacks on civilians) may have been understandable in the immediate aftermath of the shocking attacks, and confusion over the nature and extent of the threat posed by Al Qaeda.  However, decades-long conventions were subsequently discarded and established checks and balances were compromised post 9/11 through the introduction of powerful counter-terrorism legislation, shifting the balance between national security and civil liberties.  Arguably the most dramatic measures involved endowing the nation’s (formerly advisory) national security agency with extraordinary questioning and preventative detention powers. 

Over the last decade both the public and private security industries have grown exponentially, with the funds allocated to the various elements of the government’s national security architecture increasing by almost 400%.  During this period the national security sector has burgeoned, and there are now many thousands of people whose livelihood is directly or indirectly related to the threat of terrorism.  If the primary goal of terrorism is to precipitate major social and political change by engendering fear and insecurity, then 9/11 has been remarkably effective. 

Despite the passing of time and successful military action against the sources of terrorism overseas, the institutionalisation of effective detection and protective security measures, and a better official understanding of the origins and dynamics of threats, terrorism continues to play a powerful role in many areas of public policy that is quite disproportionate to its actual risk.  There appears to be a number of reasons for this situation, the most significant being the politicisation and exploitation of the issue of national security, and its deliberate conflation with other contemporary public policy issues like migration and border security for partisan advantage.  The ill-defined threat of foreign or locally-based extremism appears to have particular resonance with the community’s historical and deep-seated apprehension about “foreigners”.         

There is no doubt that it is extremely difficult to keep the risk of terrorism in perspective when its aim and effect is to engender irrational fear.  The community’s capacity to question whether government counter-terrorism actions are effective, appropriate and necessary is hampered by the limited understanding of the phenomenon of terrorism.  As a consequence there remains great potential for community fear and ignorance to be exploited for government or partisan political purposes.  In addition, the paramilitary-related dimensions of front-line counter-terrorism measures inevitably engender a zealous “higher mission” attitude amongst those involved. 

Terrorism relies on the leverage of global real-time coverage in order to engender widespread fear, and the same technology challenges the state’s historical control over information dissemination.  As states seek desperately to retain or regain a technological advantage to covertly collect digital data, the issue of protecting against the spectre of terrorism becomes a powerful rationale for additional powers and cyber security capabilities. 

The oversight mechanisms that have been established by government to protect the community’s interests and ensure accountability in the national security domain continue to operate.  One of the authors of the 2011 Independent Review of the Intelligence Community has spoken of the need to ensure that national security agencies continue to comply fully with their statutory obligations and resist the development of a utilitarian (expedient ends justify the means) culture in the conduct of their operations.  Reviews of the current counter-terrorism legislation by a COAG committee and by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor were table in the Federal Parliament in May 2013.  Both reports recommend that preventative detention orders be abolished, with the INSLM concluding that both control and preventative detention orders are not effective, appropriate or necessary.  There has been negligible public or official discussion of these reviews and it seems they sit uncomfortably with an apparent desire and willingness to exploit the continuing political power of terrorism.

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About the Author

Bill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the National Crime Authority from the early 1970s till the mid 1990s.

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