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What if? Security and asylum seekers

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 8 November 2011


The security clearance industry is just that – an industry. In theory and more often in practice, the more sophisticated a society the more efficient and streamlined is the process for obtaining a security clearance.

Record keeping - births, deaths and marriages – school, trade and university qualifications, police records, military service records and media interventions, mentions and appearances, all assist in building a profile. Couple this with an efficient filing and retrieval system and obtaining a security clearance should be neither difficult nor lengthy.

Where things start to unravel is when some, or many, of the prerequisites listed above are not kept on file or are missing from file. Add to this sloppy record keeping and matters become a bit hit or miss. Further add in corruption and the process ceases to function, information can be added or subtracted as needs be.

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There has been much talk recently of the efficacy of obtaining security clearances in Afghanistan: all of the negative factors listed, and few of the positive profile building prerequisites are present in that country.

In seeking security information from corrupted and degraded sources, western and other sophisticated security agencies are forced at times to make some hard calls. Rather than leave a blank on a vital section of a security form they might be forced to make a considered judgement based on the information available, which at times might be rather slim.

In the absence of reliable records and file keeping they might feel constrained to rely on the advice of a reliable and cultivated contact. There is always the possibility that this contact might be working for someone else or another organisation with a different agenda.

Nonetheless, political pressure might conspire to force assessments from quite thin evidence or from less than satisfactory sources. We live in an age where certainty is demanded when none can be given, Afghanistan being a case in point. But politicians require the environments they create to be water-tight, particularly when it comes to the dreaded ‘T’ word.

Most agencies live with this and mostly they do not end up giving clearances to members of terrorist groups. But when 20,000 security clearances were recently given the nod in Australia even when all the boxes were not ticked is indicative of the extent to which agencies tacitly acknowledge some information cannot be obtained and other information is not worth the paper it is written on.

Sometimes a senior agency, say in the U.S., France or Britain will make a judgement call or a value judgement. Over time, sometimes quickly, sometimes more slowly, this call gets woven into a decision, which gets picked up by other agencies and with more time becomes an established fact.

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One of the great difficulties for western agencies is relying on a single source for assessments and advice when that source is a part of, or even the other half of, an ongoing civil and political disturbance. Relying on advice from Mossad on the politics of Palestine is unwise.

Outside agencies must rely on advice for security clearances relating to Tamils living in Sri Lanka on the Sri Lankan security agencies. These agencies have been fighting the Tamils for the last three decades. They remain hostile toward the Tamils: they are the enemy.

They classified the military wing of the Tamil movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), as terrorists and in an atmosphere of heightened tension following the 9/11 attacks, were able to get a number of countries, some of them powerful, to also list the LTTE as a terrorist organisation.

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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