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National security: the public debate and the end of ‘just trust us’

Government’s plea for the public to ‘just trust us’ when it comes to claims of national security concerns is losing its power, argues ASPI analyst Danielle Cave. The answer is to empower senior officials in the arena of public debate.

Last week, Australian Signals Directorate Director-General Mike Burgess gave an on-the-record speech to ASPI’s artificial intelligence and national security masterclass. Following his speech, he took some tough questions from the media and the audience.

Public speeches by Australian security and intelligence chiefs are rare. Too rare. The website of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, for example, very appropriately uses the singular ‘speech’ to capture the one time, six years ago, when a former director-general spoke to the Australian public.

A lot has changed since 2012 when we last heard from a director-general of ASIS. We are living in a time of global uncertainty where the rules-based international order isn’t what it once was. Our most important security alliances and economic relationships face fresh, often unexpected, challenges and pressures, many of which we aren’t well prepared for. And technology and cyberspace have helped create new threats, while also breathing lifeinto old threats.

Has there ever been a more important time for this rarity to end?

This limited public engagement is more than just a neglect of—or indifference to—public communications. It has actually created problems for Australia at a time when our place in the world is under strain. It means, for example, that people are understandably sceptical when ‘national security concerns’ are cited to explain the latest international stance or policy position.

What does ‘national security concerns’ really mean when it’s said by one of our politicians or senior public servants? And does it mean the same thing every time it’s used by the government?

The Australian Financial Review’s Angus Grigg touched on this tension recently in ‘Can we trust the spies on China’s Huawei?:

This refusal to divulge the details of Huawei’s alleged miss-steps, beyond the umbrella term of ‘national security concerns’, has been grudgingly accepted over the past six years.

But we shouldn’t have to grudgingly accept anything. If our national security agencies have evidence that is being used to underpin policy decisions—and that information can be shared without revealing sources, methods and access—then the government needs to work harder to get that information into the public domain (for example, by being more strategic with public messaging or releasing redacted/unclassified versions of reports).

Parts of the Australian intelligence and security community won’t like taking on more of this responsibility, and it won’t be easy. Ministers will have to empower senior officials to speak more freely and frequently. But ministers can’t shy away from this. After all, ensuring the public are as informed as possible about national security threats is in their interests. More importantly, it’s squarely within Australia’s interests.

Getting more information out into the public domain will also require a cultural shift in how Australia’s security and intelligence agencies have traditionally seen their place within governmentBut it’s a cultural shift that’s long overdueand one that is already underway in other countries around the world (see every hyperlink in this paragraph).

Why is this so important? Because the ‘just trust us’ line is getting tired.

Having senior intelligence and security officials speak more freely and frequently will help inform, it will help build confidence and it will help foster public trust.

As my colleague Tom Uren wrote recently, some stories need to actually be told.

If the Australian government expects us to get on board with national security decisions, it’s going to have to be more proactive about getting out into the public domain to explain some of these issues, and the various tensions that colour them. But it’s not just the Australian government that must shoulder more responsibility for better informing public discourse on foreign policy and international security issues. Australia’s academics, think-tankers and journalists already play a vital role, but they, too, must become more proactive.

For example, there’s nothing more important to Australia’s future prosperity than understanding and navigating China’s rise, and Australia needs to invest in understanding its political, security and economic implications. As things stand, can we really say Australia is producing enough high-quality, relevant, timely and inquisitive research and reporting that helps us all understand this phenomenon? And understand it from a range of different perspectives?

One major problem is that at a time when we need them the most, our media outlets are retreating from reporting on the world and retreating from getting Australian reporting to the world. It’s no secret that Australia’s most talented journalists working on international, security and China-focused issues are already swamped trying to cover their expanding patches with precious few resources. In such an environment, important stories will of course be missed. Or, too often, they’re ‘covered’ by republishing American reporting (which leaves us wondering: what does this mean for Australia?).

On the research front, do we really have enough analysis coming out of our think tanks, universities and NGOs? Research undertaken by an assortment of specialists who bring different expertise to the tables? Specialists with a deep knowledge of the Chinese Communist Party and its structure; a proficiency in Chinese languages; and a strong understanding of China’s legal system, the lessons to be learned from history, and the current reforms undergoing in the People’s Liberation Army or the changing shape of China’s economy.

I’m going to say no.

Perhaps I’m saying ‘no’ because I’m greedy—I want more. And I want more from all disciplines. Democracy and decision-making are improved by better information and more informed debate, from diverse perspectives.

As ‘just trust us’ continues to hold less and less weight, we need to think carefully about, when it’s eventually ousted for good, what replaces it. We do not need more poorly informed research and reporting, valueless talking points or ‘whataboutism’. What we do need is more evidenced arguments, high-quality investigative reporting, policy-relevant research and analytical depth.

If we want to navigate Australia’s changing place in the world from the best position possible, we should all be working together—across government, media, industry and civil society—to avoid what we don’t need and encourage bucketloads of what we do need. Adding a ‘speeches tab to the barren websites of our various intelligence agencies would be a good place to start.

Danielle Cave is a senior analyst at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Edited image courtesy of Twitter user @rachael_falk.

This article was first published at APSI’s The Strategist.

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