|Webdiary - Independent, Ethical, Accountable and Transparent|
Preventing terrorism: Where do we begin?
Richard Tonkin is a longtime Webdiary contributor and volunteer. He specialises in the growing influence and success of US company Halliburton and other US defence companies in Australia, particularly in his home state, South Australia. Richard's last piece for Webdiary was The Man with the Dyed Beard Returns, and his blog is Richard Tonkin's snippets.
The Australian Federal Police and Federal government have badly botched a few terrorism deportations of late. If poor handling of the cases of Scott Parkin, Mahommed Haneef and David Hicks weren't enough, the APEC events in Sydney gave us a police force that could arrest suspects because of crimes they might commit in the future. Now AFP Mick Keelty wants greater police power to prevent crimes from happening. For reasons that may be obvious, I have a problem with this.
After witnessing the brutal tactics employed by police at APEC, I was doubly shocked to hear a familiar story being used to vilify protesters. NSW Police Minister David Campbell told the Sydney public (via ABC Radio) that one of the reasons police acted pre-emptively was intelligence that protesters were planning to roll marbles under the hooves of police horses. The same story was used (on the front page of the Australian, reportedly leaked by ASIO) to "explain" why it was necessary to confine and deport Halliburton activist Parkin. At this stage Newsweek hadn't uncovered the Pentagon File on the peanut butter sandwiches. The irony of reviving the "marbles and horses" story was that, because of the horse flu, there were no mounted policemen. Parkin's case is back before the courts now, in the wake of ASIO's disallowed appeal against the Federal Court's decision that the deportee should see the peanut butter drenched files that damned him.
The circumstances surrounding Haneef were different. There was a piece in the Australian last year in which a US counterterrorism expert forecast an ominous possibility. True, he gave it a likelihood of less than ten per cent at the time of mention. The notion was that on the weekend of APEC Al Qaeda could strike Australia by unleashing explosions simultaneously in three capital cities. It's not surprising, and in hindsight admirable, that the AFP detained somebody who, based on the circumstantial evidence available to them at that time, might well have been connected to an organised group employing the tactic of simultaneous explosions. The probability of the forecast being correct had suddenly become much greater. The trouble was that while Commission Keelty maintained that Haneef should be granted a presumption of innocence, this was not considered politically appropriate by the Federal Government. Haneef's lawyer Peter Russo has raised concerns this week that the visa appeal won't be heard until next year. Did anybody seriously expect it to happen before the election?
Having shown how brilliant they are at handling the counterterrorism powers they've already been given, have our authorities qualified themselves to receive more?
In the speech he gave in Adelaide on Monday night, AFP Commissioner Keelty had a fair bit to say on how much the world had changed since September 11 2001. He says that "Health, education and the economy remain important issues, but domestic security has been elevated to a level of importance we’ve never experienced before," adding that "our mindset has changed". He says that the AFP has "moved into new, global, law enforcement territory,"
Having stood in a public park and watched squadrons of police invade a gathering and arrest people to avert the possibility that they might commit a crime, I was particularly interested in what Mr Keelty had to say next. He explained that the Australian public expected terrorists to be caught before attacks occurred, and that legal problems would ensue. "In a prevention environment the courts will be dealing with larger numbers of inchoate crimes, or crimes that are prevented at a very embryonic stage of execution. Sentencing in this environment could become problematic, at least in the early stages." Keelty argues that through the new approach less people would be charged with "lesser" crimes because these crimes will have been prevented from occurring.
If the "marbles intelligence" was still current at the time of APEC, it would appear that one of the most publicly-active justifications of Parkin's deportation was a complete failure. And when Haneef gave a second chance to get the procedures right, another travesty arose. These are the sorts of situations Mr Keelty expects us not to read about in the future. Does that mean they won't be occurring, or just better concealed?
If APEC is an example of applying Keelty's proposed methodology, then we're about to become a society treated with benign contempt by an armed force sifting us for, and removing, potential evildoers from within our masses, smugly confident that any violations in civil liberties are justified in serving a greater good. This kind of sentiment was typified by the last NSW police commissioner when he explained that he had to worry about giving society the greatest civil liberty, "freedom from murder." All else, it seems, is trivial.
The bungling exhibited by the combined efforts of the government and its agencies, in what now can be perceived as prevention of Haneef and Parkin from carrying out future crimes, suggests that pre-emptive counterterrorism is failing miserably, and that its status quo is wide open to incompetency. And these people want us to have faith in them and give them more?
Accountability in applying counterterrorism powers is a major problem. If Keelty is lauded by federal ministers, then who is checking them? When you look at the ministerial support for the treatment of Parkin and Haneef, perhaps the concept of a Counterterrorism Ombudsman is one worth considering. The shady cloud of having allowed a government agency to provide material support (you know, the charge for which David Hicks, still the only Guantanemo convict, is locked in Yatala?) for Saddam Hussein before sending troops to capture him still looms over this government's head, and you can be certain that any political stuff-ups are going to be concealed as best as possible between now and the election. An apolitical ombudsman could have the power to eliminate such possibilities. Perhaps the idea is akin to shutting the door after the horse has bolted, but from Mr Keelty's ruminations this week, I can see that s/he could have a heavy workload in the near future. Perhaps it could be someone from ASIO? It would appear that the spooks are also unhappy with government/police power acquisition. Whether police and government would accept subservience to ASIO, though, is another thing altogether. After all, what would they know?
Looking at other end of counterterrorism gives us a fair idea of how far an idea can travel. Jack Hitt's Missile Defence piece in Rolling Stone sums up the global philosophy well.
If the perceived future possibility of terror attacks was enough to implement a global war to eliminate it, how long will it be before "terrorist friendly" words are forbidden? If the treatment of Parkin and his words is an indicator of a "possible threat" being dealt with badly, what measures are the Government and police prepared to take to correct their ineptitude? How long before authorities come to sites such as Webdiary and begin to censor our words, in the name of saving citizens from being murdered?
If local counterterrorism methods mirror the global approach of eliminating possibilities before they have a chance to occur, then our police and governments will be able to do whatever they please, whenever they feel like it.
I believe that we need to start some preventative thinking. Work out what our worst case scenario as a police state society might be, and eliminate the possibility. Under the new rules of the game, it's the only way to play.
We've had it drummed into our heads that if we change our lifestyles because of fear of terrorism then the terrorists will have won. Things aren't looking too good at the moment. We still, however, have much left to lose. In a situation with so much gravity, it's still a long way down for a society falling into becoming a martially-controlled community for the sake, so we're told, of its survival. The terrorists have much more to win, and in my opinion we're handing it to them on a platter decorated with thirty pieces of silver.