20 Oct 2017
I'm Glad Our Security Agencies Are Stretched
By John Coyne
This week spy chief Duncan Lewistabled the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation's annual report to parliament. This report tells an equally disturbing story of an intelligence service stretched to capacity by terrorism threats and a country left open to foreign interference.
Usually it's around this time that national security commentators throw themselves headlong into clichéd discussions of unprecedented threats. In contrast, their opponents will declare that the threat 'has been massively, perhaps even fancifully, inflated to produce widespread and unjustified anxiety'.
Having worked in intelligence positions for over 25 years I would argue that there are some truisms when it comes to domestic security threats and risks in Australia. I would argue that over my years of service the nature of our national security threat has become increasingly diversified and complex.
I am not lamenting the simple life of days gone by, nor seeking to create fear. I am reflecting on the way the consequences of cyber-attacks, terrorism and foreign influence in our day-to-day life have increased in severity and regularity.
It's hard to argue that non-state actors including terrorists, hackers and organised crime figures haven't increased their capacity to negatively impact upon our day-to-day life. The evidence, including the normalisation of security measures, is everywhere.
The old days of spies targeting our national secrets, like military capability, haven't gone. There is, however, increasing evidence of widespread economic espionage targeting information such as our country's intellectual property. The 2016 U.S. Election also highlights how through hacking and influence state actors can manipulate elections and policy.
Let's not forget that tech developments and globalisation trends give us more complex threats that range from terrorists and criminals using encrypted internet communications to 20 something hackers in Eastern Europe shaping public opinion.
From mass casualty attacks, lost economic opportunities, poor policy decisions and rigged elections the consequences of getting domestic security settings wrong are not insignificant. This does seem a world away from the right wing militia groups that dominated Australia's domestic security thinking in the early '90s.
For governments across the western world the argument is that, in times of uncertainty, people expect and value steadfast resolve especially when it comes to terrorism threats. Let's not forget that the 'security theatre' associated with getting tough on security does arguably have some deterrent effects. And many voters love a bit of rhetoric.
Our domestic security agencies can always do more to protect us, given more money and powers. Arguably, the days of the Australian public handing over freedoms and treasure in exchange for domestic security on the basis of a 'trust the government' platform are past. If Minister elect for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, is going to lobby for resources and powers any time soon he will have to increase security decision making transparency and accountability.
The impact of our lack of trust is that we have to accept that without more resources and powers perhaps government can't protect all of us, all the time, from all the threats. Perhaps we have to accept that we are not as safe at home as we once were.
Pezzullo and Dutton will have their work cut out for them renegotiating this into the informal or cultural security covenant between the government and the electorate. This isn't admitting defeat, but an argument that Home Affairs ought to be concerned as much with building community resilience as it is about mitigating risks.
In the interim, for me personally, I am glad that our intelligence and security agencies are stretched. It hopefully means that they are using their resources in an efficient and effective manner. And I hope that the work of Home Affairs includes a swathe of measures focused on resilience.