The human rights cost of intelligence activities

ASIO The images of the September 11 terrorist attacks are now etched deeply into our psyche. The resultant global 'war on terror' has largely crystallised international efforts by governments to combat terrorism in a'new post-September 11 security environment'.

Struggling to respond effectively to the prospects of devastating attacks from a highly committed and unconventional foe, governments have adopted a range of exceptional and sometimes indiscriminate measures. Some of these measures have impinged significantly on important and longstanding conventions that have traditionally assured human and civil rights.

Covert intelligence operations have played a major role in the global war against an elusive enemy, and intelligence advice has been pivotal in the development of national and international responses to the threat of terrorism.

Because of the secrecy that invariably surrounds intelligence activities, the community remains largely oblivious to the true nature of intelligence and its inherent limitations. In national security matters the community has to trust in the government's integrity, and assurances that it would only act responsibly and with substantial justification.

While intelligence activities can include the collection, evaluation, collation and analysis of information, the overriding objective is to develop insights that provide direction for effective action (called intelligence product). A disciplined approach to the collection and analysis of information raises the level of confidence in the reliability and accuracy of the interpretations.

But even using multiple, diverse and independent information sources and the most critical and objective analysis, the intelligence produced remains intrinsically fallible because it always involves an element of human interpretation and subjectivity.

More than 20 years after the Hope Royal Commission spelt out the central role of analysis in transforming collected information into intelligence, and following a series of highly publicised intelligence failures, the Australian Government has moved to shield intelligence advice from further public scrutiny by blurring the vital distinction between intelligence activities and intelligence product — by portraying intelligence as 'covertly obtained information'.

Under this definition it is virtually impossible for the community to determine whether what is being presented as compelling 'evidence' of a serious and imminent threat is unassessed raw data or carefully evaluated intelligence product, and whether a proposed response is justified and proportionate. Intelligence can undoubtedly constitute a valuable source of advice in the absence of facts and evidence. But the sensitivity and intrinsic fallibility of this advice means that it is rarely suitable for use in the public domain or as the basis for accountable decisions.

The limitations of secret information and intelligence product as evidence were previously revealed following a bomb explosion outside the Sydney Hilton almost 30 years ago, for which three men were first convicted, then later pardoned on the belief there had been a miscarriage of justice. Further limitations are likely to be exposed again as legal proceedings commence against suspect individuals and groups under recently-introduced counter-terrorism legislation.

Since September 11 the threat of terrorism has been a catalyst for an unprecedented concentration of authority and the emergence of a powerful paternalism under the guise of national 'leadership' in a time of crisis. 'Secret' intelligence has been used to justify policies and actions that shift the balance between the rights of the state and the individual, at the same time avoiding public scrutiny of decision-making processes. National priorities have been transformed, reducing an already inadequate level of funding support for the most disadvantaged members of our community (the poor, young, sick, aged, and indigenous Australians).

A primary objective of terrorism as an organisational strategy is to engender disproportionate fear within the wider community, and to act as a catalyst for negative changes to society that advance the terrorists' goals. Because of this objective it is possible for terrorists to be highly effective without having to undertake any or many actual terrorism operations.

An alarmist and sensationalist media, an intelligence community that grows in importance and resources in the face of imminent threats, and a government that gains electoral advantage from appearing to be tough and protective, combine to reinforce community fear and inadvertently serve the terrorists' interests.

Since the start of the 'war on terror' Muslim communities across the world have experienced unprecedented discrimination and victimisation. In the absence of a genuine understanding of the values and motivation of Australian Muslims, simplistic, ill informed and prejudicial stereotypes have driven policies and actions that have exacerbated the alienation of sections of the community. Ironically these actions have the potential to create conditions that will increase the future prospects of terrorism in Australia.

A government committed to maintaining a peaceful, just and humane society will always act to ensure that all Australians, regardless of their origin, religion, race or colour are respected as equals and enjoy fair access to the opportunities that this unique country offers.

Click here to read the longer paper on which this article was based (PDF 120k)


Bill CalcuttBill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the National Crime Authority for more than 20 years. In 1996 he was awarded the Public Service Medal in the Australia Day Awards for his outstanding service to national and international law enforcement in the development of a strategic intelligence training program. Bill now works in regional development and retains a strong interest in governance and public accountability.




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