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Free flowing security statement

By Peter Coates - posted Monday, 15 December 2008


The Government’s First National Security Statement To The Australian Parliament, delivered by Kevin Rudd on December 4, 2008, has some redeeming qualities. It doesn’t leave anything out, doesn’t make specific assumptions or provide a rigid order of security priorities. To achieve this state of grace it appears generalised and wish-washy to security analysts searching for concrete parameters and direction.

Many issues (reportedly sitting in Kevin’s in-tray) that should have been discussed months ago have been thrown together in haste as a reaction to the recent Mumbai attack. This is explicit as the Security Statement mentions “… terrorist attack in Mumbai last week …”

At only about 20 standard pages long, the Security Statement is brief and publicly accessible. It is not the longer, more detailed, tighter Counter-Terrorism White Paper preferably cross referenced to a Defence White Paper that “security experts” have been waiting for. Both White Papers may appear by mid next year once the new Obama Administration has provided policy guidance to its junior allies.

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A seemingly new situation like the Mumbai terror attack complicates the assumptions of security policy writers. The 60-hour long Mumbai terrorist attack was a situation completely unexpected by most because it was a commando style raid on a major city. The Mumbai attack can be dignified with the term “commando raid” in which a small, highly trained and efficient force disrupts a much larger force over a short period of time. Mumbai followed an old terrorist commando approach more prevalent in the late 1960s to early 70s such as the 20-hour Munich Olympic Massacre in 1972 by the Palestinian Black September group.

It is not trivialising the matter to note that inspiration for the Mumbai attack might also have come from the commando-style occupation of a large building in Die Hard. In the film and also Mumbai advanced computer resources and media monitoring were successfully used by terrorists.

Government security thinking is an art as well as a science because terrorist tactics can defy regular trends. Security intelligence, like any, is often voluminous, vague and conflicting. Information and assessment may not point to a new idea in a terror group’s mind or reveal that an old idea is being tried again. Mumbai did not follow the al-Qaida suicide bombing script and may have been an example of extreme Pakistani Islamic nationalism rather than international terrorism.

It is often politically safe for security agencies to be seen to be establishing new arrangements to minimise the last type of terrorist incident seen overseas. This is partly in reaction to a considered estimate of security risk, public expectations, the sensitivities of political masters and the expectations of allies (mainly the US). Hence September 11 was followed by increased security in Australian aircraft in the form of sky marshals and continuing introduction of airport screening equipment. Much of this may have been a reaction to US pressure due to the international nature of aviation. The July 7, 2005 London transport bombings would have lead to more highly integrated land transport security in Australian cities.

An argument for preparing for a re-run of the last major terrorist act overseas is that homegrown terrorists might see overseas tactics as a recipe for domestic success. Authorities then may have an idea of what preparatory signs to look for (such as fertiliser purchases). However an original idea such as using an entire jet as a suicide petrol bomb (September 11, 2001) or a re-run of an old commando tactic (the Mumbai attack) have demonstrably defied the imagination of local security agencies concerned.

Returning to Rudd’s Security Statement - it indicates that the option of creating a US style Department of Homeland Security was rejected because “… big departments risk becoming less accountable, less agile, less adaptable and more inward-looking …” The Security Statement added however that “… a new level of leadership, direction and coordination among the agencies …” was needed.

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This co-ordination upgrade included the creation of a “National Security Adviser” position within Rudd’s Prime Minister’s Department (PM&C). This has been implemented though the promotion of the relevant PM&C Deputy Secretary, Duncan Lewis to the higher rank of Associate Secretary. His role appears to be publicly low-key in the Westminster tradition rather than being a highly political one enjoyed by the US National Security Adviser.

The Australian National Security Adviser’s location in PM&C has already influenced his scope which, as enunciated by Rudd’s Security Statement, takes into account “climate change” and “energy security”. These largely whole of government interests underline the risk that by sitting in the most diverse government department security co-ordination could become diluted by non-security issues and thereby lose focus.

Rudd also must be careful not to allow the PM&C culture of policy co-ordination to politically taint the intelligence data that is passing through the National Security Adviser’s security co-ordination office.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Masterís Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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