No comment: citing ‘security’ to avoid questioning threatens democracy

June 16, 2015

by Tim Lyons

16 June 2015

The statement, “the government doesn’t comment on security and intelligence questions” contains an important and basically incontestable kernel of truth.

There are good reasons for some security and intelligence matters to remain out of the public domain. They might be of public interest, but the “public interest” is served by them remaining secret, at least for a while. For example, nobody sensible thinks that the Australian Federal Police should be required to reveal details of ongoing investigations, or surveillance, or plans for arrests, or that the precise location of naval assets should be posted online. Revealing certain secret information is a criminal offence, and so it should be.

But that’s not the same as saying that any question about the conduct of officials, or about tactics, or about concluded operations, are legitimately caught by the same exclusion.

The recent allegations that Australian officials may have paid people smugglers to return to Indonesia demonstrates that an ever greater area of political real estate is being quarantined from effective scrutiny. There is too much opportunity – and too much political advantage to be had – by ministers and bureaucrats being able to use the rhetorical fire-blanket “security and intelligence” as a non-answer.

The opportunity arises because “we don’t comment on security and intelligence matters” effectively shuts down sensible discussion. Sure, the story runs on, but with nothing of substance revealed, it’s all pretty much just white noise. The irresistible political advantage is that it allows the government to avoid legitimate scrutiny and prevent exposure of a blunder – or worse.

This is why the catch-all convenience of the security and intelligence exclusion is often merely obfuscation.

For one, governments routinely comment on security and intelligence matters, as any number of press conferences in front of flags and frigates or Dorothy Dixers in the parliament clearly demonstrate.

Second, not all security and intelligence matters involve questions of reasonable national secrecy, particularly after the fact. There is an enormous volume of material in the public domain about these matters. The problem is that the boundaries of the exclusion seem always to shift just enough to suit the political needs of the government of the day – Labor or Liberal.

Why, for example, are we allowed to know extensive details of the rules of engagement for ADF personnel employed in a hot warzone, but not about basic details about border protection tactics?

Given it is not uncommon for security agencies to slip the leash of ministerial direction and parliamentary oversight, and run programs or employ tactics that are beyond democratic control, we should be concerned about this.

Following these latest pay-off allegations, Labor has also relied on the security and intelligence exclusion to avoid answering questions about whether cash was paid, for information or otherwise, on its watch.

Paying for information, while a good distance from paying boats to turn around, raises its own issues. Stool pigeons are prone to saying what handlers want to hear in order to get the next envelope, and the use of paid informants domestically has been linked to multiple instances of police corruption and miscarriages of justice.

It is not difficult to imagine how things might have evolved from intelligence gathering to paying for information to straight pay-offs. Once the clever lawyer in the strategy meeting has pointed out that Asis agents enjoy a general – and understandable – immunity from prosecution in respect of overseas operations, a world of additional “options” present themselves to agencies and ministers.

It would be illegal, says the legal consensus since the story broke, for a Navy or border protection officer to pay a sling to a people smuggler. But add an Asis agent to the mix as bag-man and what would otherwise be a serious criminal offence becomes a mere tactic.

But just because you can do something doesn’t make it a good idea. Illegal or not, these sort of tactics need proper democratic scrutiny. And the security and intelligence trope operates to prevent it.

A serious, properly functioning democracy must have a way to debate these issues properly, with the facts on the table.

It has always struck me as strange that something as important as national security can be quarantined from debate or scrutiny or that it should be “above politics”. I say this not as some tragic bleeding heart, but as someone with a mainstream Labor-right view of most of these issues.

Leave aside for a moment that on questions of boats and terrorism the government appears intent on escalation until even Labor people considerably more conservative than me on these questions blow a gasket. Despite this game of chicken, there is a broad consensus about a large chunk of security issues. But that mustn’t be the end of it.

Inherent in an issue being complex, difficult and important is the inevitability of different views, and the possibility of different, competing solutions. Questions associated with national security are one example. The position of Indigenous Australians is another.

Strange then, that it’s sometimes on these sorts of questions, where a contest would not just be healthy but is necessary for democratic health and good decision making, that we mostly get dull bipartisanship. Meanwhile we have insanely vicious “contests” over nonsense issues like bias on the ABC.

The attorney general’s website warns of how bribery is “a threat to democracy and the rule of law [and] corrosive of good governance.” Dead right. But so is excessive secrecy and misuse of “security and intelligence” to avoid proper scrutiny.

And so, I might add, is losing your moral compass entirely.