Monday, September 15, 2014


The lovely thing about living in a secure democracy is that I can have a go at the retiring head of ASIO. This wouldn't be wise in much of the world. 

The official photo

I had another think about what I wrote the other day and realise I was far too harsh on David Irvine. 

He was trapped with nowhere to go when he said things that were then taken out of context by the journo's. 

I really wasn't intending to impugn him. And it's great he's spoken to the media. May Duncan Lewis do the same, more often. 

Anyway, this was my take on the issues raised in his retiring interview last week, as it appeared in the Canberra Times. . . 


David Irvine, the outgoing head of ASIO, has long been fascinated by the Wayang, or shadow puppets. He’s even written a book about this unusual Indonesian art, where shadowy images of fragile wooden stick-figures are projected onto thin, stretched fabric and stories are told of mythical fights and battles. Excitement is conjured up until the audience imagines the tall tales might even possibly be true. Everyone knows it’s just the play of light that makes the shadows look so terrifying: when examined by day the thin, buffalo-hide figurines look as if they’ll fall apart. Nevertheless, during the performance, even intelligent thinking people are happily transformed into powerless spectators. All that’s required is the suspension of critical faculties.

This is the very opposite of intelligence, of course, which requires the thorough and detailed examination of tiny nuggets of information to create an actionable picture of reality. Imagination is required; but the key is fact and precision leading to an understanding of an opponent on which one can act. Which is why it’s both surprising and disappointing that, after an impressive career spanning 44 years, Irvine suddenly abandoned everything he’s learnt and became a party to reducing our security to a kindergarten traffic-light spectrum of red, amber and green. (There are actually four levels of terrorist threat, but because the lowest suggests no attack is expected it seems reasonable to dismiss this as irrelevant.)

Last week, as he was stepping down as head of the agency, Irvine emerged into the limelight and spoke to the media. That’s good. Information is the answer to fear and alarm. It was here, however, that the problem began. Quite naturally Irvine didn’t want to discuss current operations, nor reveal any techniques. In fact he couldn’t actually say very much at all, certainly nothing anyone could act on. So Irvine reverted to statements of the bleeding obvious. “I think”, he told Leigh Sales on the 7:30 Report, “whether it's a little bit more or a little bit less than 2001, I think we are facing a persistent threat.”

Goodness. No surprises there. But that’s not the way tabloid TV like 7:30 works. Sales’ next question went straight for the jugular. “Why, if the threat has been building over the past year, is the terrorist threat level still just at medium and unchanged?” She might as well have asked if he’d stopped beating his wife yet.

Irvine said “um” and “well” before answering, which is probably because he was floored at where the question had come from. But he’s not dumb and knows how to play the game. He couldn’t dismiss the concerns he’d just raised. “I would say,” Irvine responded, “that at the moment [the threat level] is at a very elevated level of medium and I'm certainly contemplating very seriously the notion of lifting it higher”.

What difference does it make where on the colour chart you choose to place the threat level? Think about this every time you fly or are forced to stand in queues for ‘security checks’. The reality is, nothing changes. These sorts of checks serve virtually no purpose in actually deterring terrorist attacks. They do, however, convince the audience (us) that the government is seriously concerned for our welfare.

So how does raising the ‘warning level’ make us safer? Surely being ‘alert, not alarmed’ is better than moving to the next level (Presumably, ‘frozen in terror’?). This seems to be the end state towards which Sales’ questions were driving. She went on probing. “How many [terrorists] do you believe have returned home so far? Are all of those people under active surveillance by Australian authorities? Could [we be] more vulnerable to a domestic terrorist attack?” No sensible answers to any of those questions, of course, but they were never designed to elicit anything concrete we could do something about anyway. They were designed to scare. Genuine knowledge is the key to understanding what intelligence is really all about.

By themselves, facts can be interesting. Indeed, when I began as a journalist I was surprised to learn just how many facts there are. I went about collecting them for my stories. But it didn’t take very long to work out that all these facts were, by themselves, useless. It’s the way they’re put together and placed into a framework – made actionable – that allows them to speak.

So let’s work out what Irving was really trying to tell us, without getting too excited by whether there are ten or fifty terrorists and if the current situation is a “crisis”. He’d never reveal this anyway. Irvine’s first point was, nevertheless, that these are dangerous times. Two things follow from this. There’s a need to continue funding (and empowering – although this is far more controversial) the agencies that investigate both alienated people and those likely to instigate attacks here. The second is that all of us need to become involved. No agency can ever employ enough people to check and protect everything. The French secret agents who bombed the Rainbow Warrior were discovered and caught by ordinary New Zealanders. A similar, effective response today depends on all of us.

His other key message is that this is an ideological war. It will be won by creating an inclusive country; one where people can flourish by participating in society, rather than by excluding those who are different. Sure, it’s fine to indulge in the banal futility of “raising the terrorism threat level” if you want too. But recognize this is, for all effective purposes, useless. Don’t get scared by the terrifying shadows of the puppets. Investigate reality. Assist by contributing positively to our community.

We don’t need soldiers and bombs. This is a war of ideas.

1 comment:

  1. puppets.... like Mr Squiggle ? move aside Austin Powers, the 007 of journalism Nic Stuart is here...