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National security: playing fair with the bad guys

By John de Meyrick - posted Friday, 16 October 2015

In the early years of growing up we come to know the many heroes of our story books, comics, films and videos. From Robin Hood to James Bond, and all those other tough guys (and some very fearless females as well) who take on the legions of fictional villains who seek to destroy our way of life.

Whatever their evil business may be or how close our super heroes come to the brink of desperate failure, in every case and in every situation, in the end good somehow manages to triumph over evil.

Yet, in real life, where good over evil cannot be scripted, there are far more cunning and crafty criminals just as intent on evil deeds and 'dirty tricks':


Drug dealers. Money launderers. Tax evaders. Child traffickers. Paedophile rings. People smugglers. Industrial espionage thieves. Illegal weapons dealers. Internet swindlers. Corrupt officials. Crime syndicates. Cultural property pirates. Foreign intelligence hackers and other 'bad guys' including suicide bombers, terrorists and their supporters, all operating in the knowledge that our security forces are bound by legal and ethical 'rules' that limit how far they can go, not only in tracking down such perpetrators, but also in the way they obtain the evidence needed to meet the standard of proof required for arrests and convictions.

Many other countries care little about such matters. They have KGB-type agents operating without such constraints. In Australia we expect our law enforcement agencies to be answerable for any conduct that is contrary to the principles of fair play and the standards of engagement which we hold to be paramount and inviolable, whilst their adversaries are free to operate as cunningly and as unconscionably as they please in the pursuit of their unlawful and evil purposes.

Our people endure and uphold these standards on the very noble and high-minded principle that whilst those who perpetrate the most horrendous crimes and deny justice to others may forfeit any right to expect justice for themselves, even the worst criminal is entitled to a fair trial not for their benefit but for ours.

It follows as an imperative of these ideals that the standards of fair play must be maintained in all matters of national security. For if we once abandon those standards or condone the lowering of their application in respect of our enemies we will surely come to have the same standards applied to ourselves.

To add to these constraints, our headline-seeking media assumes the right to know every intricate detail of the inner workings, the plans, policies, personnel and operational strategies of every action involving national security that is taken, as well as to judge, criticise and sensationalise it to the world even though the 'bad guys' may benefit more from such knowledge than does the public.

There is of course a role for the media and for investigative journalists in matters of national security provided it is exercised responsibly, timely and without jeopardising sensitive counter-security measures, undermining confidence in our security forces and damaging the integrity of our country. All too often the thoughtless and addictive urge to publish serves no purpose but to embarrass and chastise the dedicated men and women of our security agencies, including the military, in their efforts to keep us safe from subversive harm.


The job of national security has been made all the harder in recent years due to the increasing internationalisation of criminal activity, where the crime is perpetrated outside our borders but where the effect of that crime is felt at home; and where apprehending the criminals and proving their crimes are far more difficult under virtually the same 'rules' for dealing with home-based ordinary wrongdoers.

According to reports, Australia is currently experiencing relentless attacks from cyber-security threats which have more than tripled in the past three years, mainly targeting energy providers, banking systems, the communications sector and private defence companies. There were 1131 cyber-threat incidents last year alone. The main culprits: China and Russia, with forecast costs in the order of more than one billion dollars in malicious damage.

Among the more serious problems our agencies are dealing with at present is home-grown terrorism: Some 120 Australians fighting overseas with ISIL. At least 35 already killed. More than 150 passports for travel to the conflict areas of the Middle East cancelled or refused. Another 160 persons at home known to be supporting and financing ISIL. Over 400 cases under investigation with many young Muslims and children under 14 being radicalised.

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About the Author

John de Meyrick is a barrister (ret’d), lecturer and writer on legal affairs.

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