Monday, September 13, 2004

Keeping Australia Safe...

The major political parties disagree on the best methods for keeping Australians safe at home and how to disarm threats.
The Jakarta embassy bombing has shown in bloody fashion why no policy can guarantee Australia is fully protected against terrorist attack.
Australians are at their most vulnerable overseas when they are far from the protection of tough anti-terrorism laws and security measures and it is increasingly clear that South-East Asia is Australia's front line in the so-called war on terror.
However dangerous the situation, they will continue to travel abroad.
Two years after the Bali bombings, more Australians than ever are applying for passports and, before this latest attack, the number visiting Bali was nearly back to the levels before the nightclub attacks.
Some of Indonesia's more militant Islamic schools are fertile recruiting grounds for the main regional terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiah, and, with the national school system badly underresourced, they are attracting students in large numbers.
Reducing that flow of recruits is crucial but it also carries the risk of Australia overplaying its hand and making matters worse.
Labor says that by getting involved in Iraq the Government has paid too little attention to the threat on our doorstep. It has promised to spend $37.5 million strengthening the Indonesian education system and the counter-terrorism resources of the police there.
The Government says it is well aware of the schools problem but any move to interfere has to be discreet to avoid being seen as anti-Muslim.
Labor also says relations with neighbouring countries must be improved so that the Australian Navy and Air Force can help patrol the region to prevent terrorists moving among the archipelago nations of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia or attacking shipping in waterways such as the Strait of Malacca. Many ships carry dangerous cargo such as liquefied natural gas.
The Government says the key to thwarting attacks is good intelligence and has told the agencies they can have whatever resources they need, but it will take years to recruit and train enough personnel with strong regional language skills.
The Government has reached counter-terrorism agreements with nine neighbouring countries.
Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, it has spent an extra $3.2 billion on national security.
Parliament has passed a wide range of tough national security laws making it a crime to even associate with members of organisations deemed by the Attorney-General to be terrorist.
The number of defence personnel on alert to combat terrorists has been more than doubled and special forces have been trained to deal with weapons of mass destruction. Air marshals have been placed on some international flights, and baggage and passengers are being more thoroughly screened.
Labor says that's not enough. It wants a high-level inquiry into the intelligence agencies and it will create a new department of homeland security.
The department would put under unified command the security functions that are now scattered across government departments and under the direction of ministers who have part-time responsibility for security among their other functions.
Labor's new department would take in the security functions of the Attorney-General's Department, Immigration, Customs and the national security division of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which would oversee the transition.
Other agencies to remain separate while reporting to the minister for homeland security would be the Australian Federal Police (including the proposed new coastguard), the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Crime Commission, Austrac (which traces laundered money), Crimtrac (a fingerprint and DNA database) and the Institute of Criminology.
Labor says the plan would bring a more cohesive command structure and allow greater information sharing.
The US created such a department two years ago and Daniel Benjamin - director of counter-terrorism in the National Security Council during the Clinton presidency and now a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that restructuring did not work well because it was too ambitious. While after September 11 some US Government functions had to be rationalised, the new department was much less effective than the 22 agencies that went into it.
Benjamin says it will be another two to five years before it gets back to that point.
The Government says creating such a department and launching a judicial inquiry would distract the security agencies from their task of protecting the community at a time of widespread international terrorism.
It says that in the middle of a global war on terror Labor would squander the precious time of the intelligence, security and border protection agencies by trying to implement a large, ill-defined and unworkable political fix. Labor says its plan is less ambitious and it will avoid the problems encountered by the US.
David Wright-Neville, a former officer in the Office of National Assessments, the agency that reports to the Prime Minister, says the agencies are in a bureaucratic mess, morale is falling and there's a risk of bureaucratic turf wars among agencies undermining their efforts.
There's a strong view among security experts that invading Iraq has made the situation worse.
Aldo Borgu, a terrorism specialist with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says that if Iraq is the front line in the war on terror that's because the US and Australia have made it so. In fact, what is happening in Iraq is more classic urban guerilla warfare than a campaign of terrorism.
That view is backed by Daniel Benjamin who says the invasion was a mistake that turned the country into a giant recruiting ground for terrorists.
Allan Behm, a former head of the Defence Department's international policy and strategy division, says Iraq has made Australia a greater target because there are now more people with more anger seeking to direct it at Australia for what they believe is a war against Islam.
Borgu also argues that even calling the campaign a war on terror is a mistake because it creates the impression it can only be fought with military means when a much broader strategy is required.
He says the Government's white paper on terrorism has excessively played down the "root causes" of terrorism - issues such as poverty and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
He says the Government is right to claim that an activist foreign policy, as in Iraq, can help combat the threat. "But by the same token it can also feed the threat."


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