In the wake of yesterday’s tragedy in Jakarta, terrorism is back on the electoral agenda, whether we like it or not. It has not really gone away of course, but the political parties in Australia seem to have had a mutual non-aggression pact to not discuss the issue.
That could be sensible – exposing an issue to the harsh light of publicity is generally not the best way to generate the best possible policy. Few sensible ideas survive a mangling by Australia’s media/political complex in good shape.
But what should Australia’s policy settings regarding terrorism actually be? I am not seeing this given much thought in the press, nor have the political parties had much to say about it. I am talking about the nuts and bolts. I do not have answers, but let us at least ask questions.
What follows is a long essay discussing Australia’s capacity to respond to terrorism from a policy level, and at a reactive level. I have absolutely no expertise in this field, I have just written a sort of “wish-list” of what a sensible policy platform should look like. I know Troppo readers are never short of a good idea or three so please feel free to make constructive suggestions, improvements, etc.
We have to look at the sorts of problems that we have to deal with. We can say that there are five possible scenarios that policymakers have to confront. Firstly, there is an offshore attack against Australian interests, such as yesterday’s bombing, or the 2002 attack on Bali.
Second, there is the possibility of an aviation based attack, such as what happened in New York. Also, the more ‘old fashioned’ hostage sort of attack has to be considered as well.
Thirdly, the threat posed by car bombs, and suicide bombers, where a mobile object or person is placed in a static facility with the aim of causing as much destruction as possible. This menace might also be subdivided into attacks that are designed to cause maximum casualties, and attacks which are designed to destroy infrastructure.
Fourthly, there is the nightmare of a “Belsan” type situation, where a large number of people are taken hostage by armed terrorists, and a resulting siege takes place.
Finally, there are the ‘known unknowns’, made famous by Donald Rumsfeld. The comic aspect of what he said should not deter policymakers from understanding his point- we must recognise that there are dangers out there that we do not know about, and may well not know about until they actually happen. A well-constructed policy should bear this in mind, and be mindful of its own limitations.
Intelligence is a key in any government’s anti-terrorism strategy. Attacks on Australian targets overseas are properly the responsibility of the ASIS branch, and countering domestic threats is currently a task that is divided between ASIO, the AFP, and state police forces.
My first thought is that it is silly to have two domestic security services. The AFP has gradually expanded from keeping law and order in Canberra to being almost an FBI equavilent; my initial policy instinct would be to abolish ASIO and greatly expand the AFP, or vice versa. However, since the goal here is to have an efficient domestic intelligence service, whatever works best is good. But in general there should be clear lines of responsibility, and everyone should be working together instead of having ‘turf wars’.
Having the federal system that we do, turf wars are a fact of life, and there needs to be smooth workings between the federal and state governments and their agencies. Most (if not all) state police forces have ‘tactical response groups’ or equivalent forces, and these groups will be the key response personnel in the case of a serious hostage situation. This brings up a point where I really do not have a clue what the best answer is- should there be a federal version of the ‘tactical response group’ to assist in such situations? I can see a case for both sides.
Some would argue that the SAS can be used, but I would say otherwise. The SAS is a military unit, and it is trained to be, well, efficient at killing people. It is very good at that, and while there is a lot to be said for killing terrorists, generally the focus of anti-terrorism forces should be to avoid killing people, as hostages, bystanders and other innocents get killed as often as not. This has obvious implications for the sort of training and equipment that is used in these situations.
In the other sorts of terrorist situations, such as a bombing, it seems best to me that the sort of high level expertise in the AFP is kept at a central level; for one thing, we do not have do deal with this problem at such a level that we need state police to develop strong skills in this area. But they will be at the front line at any given situation, so they do need to work with the AFP. I would guess that such things already happen, but in a nuts and bolts strategy, you do not overlook the basics, either.
There are a lot of political implications in all of this. There are fundamental debates that have to be had about the trade-off between security and liberties. Do we grant domestic security agents the right to bug phones, buildings and the like? If so, how are they to be supervised? Should police be able to invoke emergency powers to prevent a terrorist attack, and if so, how?
There are trade-offs in all of these areas, and that is the nuts and bolts of politics- doing trade offs is what politics is all about. But the way in which these questions are answered have an impact on the way we defend ourselves against terrorism.
Another political issue that needs sensitive handling is relations between Australia’s Muslim communities and the government. It is a sad fact of life that most of the attentions of domestic intelligence agencies are going to be focused on terrorists using various Islamic teachings as a justification for their crimes, and as a result, there are undoubtly problems with the Australian Islamic community and the way that they feel about Australian institutions.
Building a climate of confidence will not be easy; if Margo Kingston thinks the Australian media and political community is controlled by “the fundamentalist Zionist lobby” one shudders to think what Australian Muslims feel. But it is still important to make the effort, both for Australian Muslims and the wider community. Nothing is more likely to cause a surge of ‘islamophobia’ in Australia then a terrorist attack here, and it is still vital to make the effort for the cause of preventing an attack.
Another political point that needs to be reviewed are a range of laws. It is alarming that there was no laws against what David Hicks might have done in Afghanistan- I am not sure if that particular situation has been remedied, but there may well be other legal problems that might arise in a terrorist situation. Also I think there needs to be thought given to protecting police and other law enforcement officers from over-eager prosecutions that might arise from the course of their duties.
I am not saying that there is a problem with that happening; there might be a problem with the perception of this happening. The last thing we need is for law-enforcement officers to have doubts in the back of their mind in a hostage situation that they are going to be prosecuted. This is a delicate balancing act between the need to support police and the need to prevent abuses of power. (Such as in this case, where a British soldier is under arrest for killing an Iraqi civilian while arresting him in Iraq). This is not at all easy, but policymakers need to take such dilemmas in mind before they become an issue.
Then there is the vexed question of foreign policy. At a broad level this is hard because there is so much heavy politicing going on. At a more specific level, what is needed is for international co-operation between law-enforcement operations. This actually seems to be going on quite well between Australian and Indonesian experts, and this relationship needs to be built on and protected. It needs to be protected from electioneering politicians, and loud mouthed whackos and pundits. Also it needs to be recognised that Indonesia also has electioneering politicians and loud mouthed whackos and pundits, and care needs to be taken to not take offence at same.
These are unavoidable in democracies; what is important is that trust and respect exist between the people that matter in this relationship (policymakers and law-enforcement people) and that not too much attention is given to the noise made by the troublemakers that exist (and are essential to any part of a democracy. Indonesia has elections too.) Trying to educate the wider Australian public about Indonesian politics, policymakers and issues through the Australian media may be a lost cause, but Australia’s key personnel should make efforts to keep informed about who is who in Indonesia.
Indonesia is the key relationship, but there are plenty of other important relationships that need to be worked with as well. As ever, a sense of pragmatism and making things work need to take a front seat and ideology and electioneering politiking needs to be kept in the background as much as possible, with due recognition of the fact that politics are also unavoidable.
We need to be tolerant of the differences that exist between nations, but also we need to work on educating our neighbours that we also are different; robust political grandstanding is terribly distasteful to Indonesian culture but indispensable as part of our own.
As a guiding principle, Australian governments do need to be honest with the Australian public, both in terms of what the government is doing, and as to what Australia’s anti-terrorism policy is, and what the goals of that policy should be. Given the sensitivities of this area, governments tend to be over-secretive, both for reasons of operational security, and also because cock-ups tend to have such a huge political price. If governments were actually honest about cock-ups, the public (though not the media/political complex) would be a lot more forgiving. And policymakers must accept that cock-ups will happen. The government should be upfront about it, and work to reduce them without having savage witch-hunts. I mentioned before that I am worried that law-enforcement officers may be in danger of being reticent when they should be bold out of fears of prosecution; it is just as bad if they hold back when they should not because of fears of scapegoating. Australia’s finest need all the support that they deserve and policymakers should look to remove any impediments that affect their work.
And if the government needs to keep things a secret (which is par for the course) it should say so. The government should work to educate people about the realities of dealing with the terrorist problem, so that people can make a more informed assessment about how the government is doing. By this, I mean the government should point out the limitations of intelligence, the legal difficulties involved, the balancing acts and compromises involved. I do not think they will get a great deal of assistance from the Australian media, but concerned Australian citizens will be able to make their own assessment if they care to try to find out.
I admit I do not have answers to any the questions I have raised here. However, I know that in policy, asking the right questions are half the trick. The end goal of Australia’s anti-terrorism policy should be to keep us safe while protecting our liberties, both as individuals and as a nation.