PM’s ABC Critique Masks Deeper Security Debate

Sometimes the backdrop is more interesting than the performance.

It was significant that, when Prime Minister Tony Abbott launched his critique of the ABC last Wednesday, he singled out the ABC’s apparent promotion of the National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, who he described as “a traitor … who has betrayed his country”.

Because it’s easier to argue about the ethics of whistleblowing or the role of public broadcasting than come to terms with the radical changes in the politics and governance of national security over the past decade.

As my Institute of Public Affairs colleague James Paterson wrote in Fairfax papers last week, the case for ABC privatisation isn’t altered one bit by whether the network is pro-Australia or not.

(The hysterical fears about Malcolm Turnbull’s efficiency review are also a bit much. The ABC is a $1.2 billion piece of public policy. Public policy ought to be constantly reviewed – especially public policy that big.)

No, what we are seeing is the antipodean wing of a bigger debate about the place of national security in an open society.

The Indonesian spying revelations and the National Security Agency surveillance scandal are elements of this larger issue.

And with the military secrecy focus of Operation Sovereign Borders, the Abbott government has managed to drag asylum seeker policy into the national security net.

National security has always been an insiders’ game – a privilege of political power. Politicians who win government are suddenly taken into the tent. They’re granted the right to hear secrets kept from the people who elected them.

This is both an honour and a terrible responsibility: Those politicians inevitably get the blame if anything goes wrong.

Their responsibility makes them risk-averse and more sensitive to the desires of intelligence bureaucracies than other bureaucracies. It’s easier to say no to the deputy secretary of the Education Department than the director general of ASIO. It’s easier to bring innovative ideas from outside government to education than to the black box of national security and intelligence.

This has always been the case. What’s changed is the size of that black box.

It’s hard to overestimate the significance of the September 11 terrorist attacks for the development of the modern national security state.

With a decade’s hindsight, it has been as big a deal as the introduction of standing armies in the 19th century – a permanent, impossibly ambitious mass intelligence operation on a constant war footing.

Hence the United States’ historically unprecedented surveillance program, where a secretive bureaucracy hoovers up the world’s internet and phone records under the theory that almost anyone, anywhere is potentially a terror suspect.

The program is either unconstitutional or questionably constitutional. Either way, it certainly exceeds its legislative mandate.

At the end of last month a bipartisan government commission found the National Security Agency was misusing powers in its collection of phone records.

It’s pretty damning. Congress only permitted the collection of material related to ongoing investigations, and, even then, the agency given this power was the FBI, not the NSA. Nor could the commission identify any terrorist attack that had been directly thwarted by the use of this program.

This is all before we get to the grave civil liberties consequences of the mass data collection.

Of course, much of what we know about it comes from the Edward Snowden leaks. It doesn’t matter whether you think Snowden is a traitor or hero or something in-between. It is undeniably true that had those leaks not occurred, we would be none the wiser about the Obama administration’s probably illegal, unquestionably disturbing, and obviously dangerous security program.

It’s an interesting hypothetical as to whether, even had September 11 never occurred, governments would have sought and acquired such powers anyway.

But that’s the key: The NSA surveillance is only possible thanks to technological developments that enable such huge amounts of information to be collected, stored and processed.

And, conversely, it is those technological developments that have made it possible for the new era of whistleblowers and leakers to have the impact they have had.

Daniel Ellsberg had to photocopy the Pentagon Papers by hand on a very new and unfamiliar Xerox machine. It took him and a colleague all night. By contrast, Bradley Manning easily transferred a quarter of a million documents onto a blank CD while pretending to lip-sync a Lady Gaga song. Uploading them to WikiLeaks would have been even quicker.

As explosive as they were, the Pentagon Papers were only an internal history of the Vietnam War up to 1967 – not the raw material of diplomacy and intelligence we’re seeing today.

There’s another important development that has been somewhat obscured by the political contest surrounding our new era of leaks.

What we’re seeing is not the surreptitious transfer of secrets from one country’s intelligence agency to another country’s intelligence agency – as has been the historical norm – but the very open transfer of secrets from intelligence agencies to the public sphere.

All the political sound and fury has been over the release of information to voters. In other words, the opening of the national security black box to democratic scrutiny and debate.

The Indonesian spying scandal was a particularly stark demonstration of that dynamic. Indonesia knows we spy on them, as we know they have spied on us. The political problem is that the Indonesian public now know too.

These leaks will keep happening. Maybe not from Snowden or Manning, but the next person. Embarrassing disclosures about the secret inner workings of the national security state is the new normal. It’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing – it just is.

And democratic governments are just going to have to learn to deal with it.