Vice-Chancellor Professor Kerry O. Cox with Director-General of ASIO, Mr Paul O'Sullivan
The Australian Security Environment and the Importance of Security Research
Mr Paul O'Sullivan
Director General - Australian Security Intelligence office
Thursday, 6 November 2008, 4.00pm
ECU Joondalup Campus
I will begin by talking about the current security environment, before discussing ASIO's role, particularly in context of our contribution to Australia's liberal democratic culture and system of government.
- I want to flesh out, in particular, the positive and enabling relationship between properly performing security services and the core norms and values of liberal democracy.
I will also draw attention to the importance of engagement between national security and national research and educational institutions, and why I think institutions such as Edith Cowan that foster practical knowledge and skills are so valuable for our broader national effort to combat terrorism and other threats to security.
The security environment
Australia continues to face threats to our security from terrorism, espionage, and foreign interference.
Terrorism by violent jihadists is a significant and immediate threat to Australia and Australian interests.
The picture is complicated and continues to evolve.
From a global perspective, counter-terrorism efforts remain focused on disrupting tightly-knit, disciplined groups and networks engaged in violent anti-Western jihad.
Al-Qai'da is the vanguard of this movement of violent jihadists, and its core leadership group, who are operating from a stronghold in the tribal areas of Pakistan, retains the capacity, and the determination, to carry out and sponsor mass-casualty attacks against Western and international targets.
As such, we are greatly concerned by the deteriorating situation in South Asia, notably in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The significant terrorist attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on 20 September targeted a venue known to be frequented by Westerners, killing some 60 people of various nationalities, injuring around 260 more, and destroying much of the hotel.
- As a direct challenge to the new Pakistan government and its ability to maintain stability and security, this attack once again highlights the strategic character of the campaign being waged by global jihadists.
There are also troubling signs of growing terrorist activity in India, including the recent bombings for which the Indian Mujahadeen has claimed responsibility.
Ongoing violence and instability in South Asia is clearly bad for the people living in this region.
It's also bad for Australia because it gives the extremists more room and more oxygen to grow in strength and plan attacks against Western targets, not only there, but in the heartlands of the West as well.
As the Prime Minister said a couple of weeks ago, Australia '
has a direct security interest in strategic denial - preventing terrorism by denying terrorists free access to Afghanistan.'
This is because previous experience indicates that ungoverned or under-governed areas in which extremists gain a foothold have provided significant opportunities for individuals from around the world, including from Australia and our region, to travel there to engage in terrorist training or participate in insurgent activity.
- A scenario that has serious consequences for our domestic security environment, and the security of Australians and Australian interests in our immediate region.
Notwithstanding the significance of the regrouping of al-Qa'ida's core leadership in South Asia, counter-terrorism efforts must also deal with congeries of groups, networks and individuals that are either loosely affiliated with the hard core of global jihad, or operating parallel to it, within its 'inspirational shadow', so to speak.
This is why the global jihad is so fluid and decentralised, why al-Qa'ida core is an important part of the story, but by no means all of it.
It's also why ASIO is concerned by the dynamic formation, evolution and splintering of extremist networks, whether in South East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, or within our domestic environment.
The formation and evolution of the global jihadist movement over the past couple of decades has given rise to a fluid and unsettled environment, or rather a set of potentially interconnected, unsettled environments in which we have to carry out our responsibilities, through our own investigations, and in cooperation with our Australian and overseas partners.
ASIO's investigative challenges are not limited to the area of terrorism, however.
Traditional state-centric threats such as espionage remain features of the geopolitical environment.
Australia is an important and influential country regionally and on the world's stage.
As a prosperous nation with an advanced military capability, significant energy resources, and strong strategic relationships with major powers, we are a target for espionage.
Espionage is far from static, however, and continues to evolve in new directions in response to new drivers, new opportunities, and new methods.
The hardening of existing or emerging geopolitical tensions, or sustained periods of militarisation, are likely to increase the incentives of state agencies to engage in espionage.
But there are other reasons why foreign governments might engage in collection activity against Australian governments and Australian industry, particularly given that not all countries regard state power and national economy as separate spheres within the framework of economic globalisation and liberalisation.
Given the increasing use by governments and business of electronic information systems and the internet, cyber-espionage is a growing area of concern it represents a cost effective, reasonably low risk form of intelligence collection, particularly in light of the challenges that can arise when it comes to determining the purpose and source of such activity.
It is for these reasons that ASIO has been devoting more resources to counter-espionage and is working closely with other national security agencies to deal with current and emerging threats in this area.
ASIO's role in context of Australia liberal democratic system of government
As there are many students in the audience today, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about ASIO's role in context of Australia's democratic system of government, and our democratic culture more broadly.
As with other security services, our role is sometimes contested and there are, and perhaps always will be, some who have serious misgivings with it.
There are ongoing debates about:
- whether security and freedom are complimentary and compatible, or conflicting and contradictory, public goods;
- whether security considerations hamper the development of a more open society in a globalised world; and
- whether security measures most notably in the wake of some of the major events Australia has recently hosted have become excessive.
I personally believe that constructive criticism and debate about institutions is a healthy and necessary feature of our public life.
It is part of the 'rough and tumble' of a robust, open political system.
That said, it would be remiss, in my view, if public discourse neglected the positive and enabling relationship that exists between properly performing security services and the core norms and values of liberal democracy.
It is this positive relationship on which I'd like to expand.
ASIO is Australia's security intelligence service. This means we collect and assess intelligence and provide advice on individuals and groups whose activities are prejudicial to Australia's security.
The definition of these activities is neither arbitrary, nor the province of our own judgement and opinion. Rather, they have been enacted by Parliament in our legislation as:
- politically motivated violence;
- the promotion of communal violence;
- attacks on Australia's defence system;
- acts of foreign interference.
The nature and the source of the threats to security that ASIO investigates therefore vary.
They include the activities of foreign governments.
They include the activities of non-citizens.
They include foreign groups and networks that have identified Australia as a target and planned or conducted attacks against Australia, Australians, and our interests.
We also investigate and collect intelligence on Australian citizens whose activities are, or may be, prejudicial to security.
And this last area is the aspect of our work most capable of generating misunderstandings, and most usually cited by some as the proverbial 'sand in the cogs' of an open society.
Yet the framework for our investigations of Australian citizens, as enacted by Parliament in our legislation, and expanded in more detail by the Attorney-General's guidelines about how our work should be carried out, distinguishes between legitimate and democratic, and illegitimate and undemocratic, behaviours and activities.
ASIO is forbidden from taking actions that limit the right of Australian citizens to engage in lawful advocacy, protest or dissent because, as the ASIO Act clearly states, 'the exercise of that right shall not, by itself, be regarded as prejudicial to security'.
Politically motivated violence, especially terrorism, espionage and foreign interference, however, are prejudicial to Australia's security. If left unchecked, these activities would constitute direct attacks on our liberal democratic political culture, or be more broadly corrosive of the nation's ability to act in the world.
It's difficult to imagine how a healthy liberal democracy like Australia, and the open and tolerant society that underpins our political system, could function, let alone fulfil its potential, without having appropriate measures in place to prevent those who seek to use violence to pursue political or ideological goals.
For, at its very core, politically motivated violence, especially terrorism, is:
- the violent renunciation of politics by negotiation;
- the violent abnegation of the liberties and disciplines involved in civil and civic conversation; and
- the violent repudiation of the principles of political, religious, and cultural pluralism, most pointedly, tolerance and mutual respect for differences.
Violent protest, which is another area we investigate, is neither lawful nor democratic.
It is undemocratic not only because it can involve threats to the physical safety of others, or because it involves the use of violence to intimidate people with different interests or points of view.
Violent protest is also undemocratic and this is a point infrequently observed because it often takes place in the same space as, and therefore disturbs, the ability of other citizens to engage in peaceful protest or dissent.
It can infringe, that is, their democratic right to protest peacefully.
Or take foreign interference, which can involve foreign diplomats and officials collecting information about, or even targeting, individuals in Australia who they consider to be disloyal or dissident.
In a multi-cultural country such as Australia, this might include attempts to curtail or derogate the rights of Australian citizens to express their views, to associate freely, or simply to create a new life for themselves here without the interference of their former country's government.
Because of the seriousness of the threats we investigate, the most intense and dangerous of which could, if left unchecked, result in catastrophic loss of life, or significant damage to the nation's vital infrastructure, our security functions are anticipatory in nature.
This simply means that our efforts are focused on prevention. In some cases, swift and decisive action will be needed to disrupt potential threat-to-life issues.
But all of our investigations must yes, must be proportionate to the risk at hand, with an express bias toward using the least intrusive means possible.
- This is quite explicitly set out in the Attorney-General's guidelines under which we carry out our responsibilities, the text of which is available on ASIO's website.
What is more, while many of our activities must remain classified, everything we do is subject to a stringent oversight and accountability framework.
Aside from being subject to the ongoing oversight of the Cabinet and the Attorney-General, the first legal officer of the Commonwealth, we are subject to:
- the scrutiny of Parliament, including through the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and
- the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, who's powers are virtually the equivalent of a standing royal commission.
We are also subject to the more informal scrutiny performed by the media, non-government organisations, and members of the public.
This gives you a sense of why I see ASIO's work as being strongly aligned to the protection of the rights of Australian citizens, and to securing the interests we all have in a peaceful, vibrant, cosmopolitan democratic culture.
Nevertheless, this perspective remains counterintuitive in some quarters.
Why this is the case would make for an interesting research topic. I would hazard to suggest that part of the answer is found in the legacy of certain strands of Enlightenment thinking, which identify activities by the state as the principal danger to individuals and communities.
This political and intellectual ethos was forged largely in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, in response to political absolutism and authoritarian monarchy.
During this period, prominent enlightenment thinkers, and a larger retinue of lesser-known pamphleteers, sought to contest the power imbalance between absolutist monarchs and representative bodies, by asserting particularly strong versions of rights doctrine.
This body of thinking was carried into the constitutional systems of government of later periods, bringing with it the earlier focus on the dangers posed by absolutist state power.
This legacy undoubtedly has made a sustained and valuable contribution to protecting and enhancing those individual liberties that underpin our liberal democratic system of government.
One of its side effects, however, has been the tendency to crowd out, within modern rights discourse, the equally legitimate concern with the dangers posed to individuals, communities and governments by other states, foreign non-state actors, and, indeed, that small minority of fellow citizens, who, for whatever reason, espouse and pursue politically motivated violence.
In advanced liberal democracies, opinion diverges regarding where to strike the best balance between the rights of security and others rights, with some stressing the capacity of security measures to erode fundamental freedoms, and others highlighting the capacity of those who would abuse these freedoms to erode our fundamental security.
Striking an appropriate balance to this problem is the task of our democratically elected Parliament.
In determining where this balance should lie at any given time, Parliament considers the challenges posed by the changing security and strategic environments, and the measures needed to deal effectively with them.
Fortunately, within Australia, in light of our constitutional system of government, and the separation of powers, our free media, together with our common law tradition, and the quality of our independent judiciary, we have never experienced the sort of power imbalances against which these enlightenment thinkers originally reacted.
Outside of the specific terms of these important debates, there is much value in increasing public awareness of the role of one of Australia's key national institutions.
This is why it is important that heads of ASIO give public speeches.
And it is also why I announced in May this year that ASIO will commission the writing of an independent Official History of the Organisation, from its establishment in 1949 to 1978.
Critical threats and critical approaches to security challenges
I began by acknowledging the value of universities offering specialised courses and programs that prepare graduates for a rewarding career in our national security institutions.
I note, in this context, there has been some debate about the study and teaching of courses on terrorism in tertiary institutions, both here and overseas.
I don't wish to become embroiled in debates about the relative merits and value of academic scholarship, which is largely a matter for academics.
The study of politics and history, and of political pathologies such as terrorism, involves competing methodologies and approaches.
And scholars of differing intellectual and political persuasions are capable of bringing to bear valuable insights on their subject matter.
I would be concerned, however, with the implication that the presumed promise of the discipline of 'critical terrorism studies' relates to the presumed absence of critical thinking about terrorism and other security threats within the policy community, or organisations responsible for countering such threats.
For there is no such absence.
There's nothing uncritical about the way governments and officials analyse and assess the threat posed by terrorism, or other areas of concern for Australia's security.
With regards ASIO, our staff engage in practical, critical reasoning on a daily basis.
The type of critical reasoning ASIO officers employ is:
- grounded in weighty and demanding responsibilities;
- augmented by sophisticated analytical techniques; and
- sharpened by the time-critical, complex nature of the security environment in which we work.
- An environment, needless to say, given my earlier comments, that is hazardous and challenging.
Analytical teams within ASIO have to sift-through, organise and critically assess multiple source information, usually within pressing timeframes.
We obtain thousands of intelligence leads each year, each of which has to be assessed to identify its relevance to security.
In the information age, open sources are a particularly valuable resource. And, with the widespread use of computers and information technology, the range and volume of data collected by ASIO continues to increase rapidly.
In order to develop high quality information for our intelligence operations and analysis, and to supplement traditional analysis methods, we continue to expand our ability to perform complex and advanced analysis, focusing on the development of cutting-edge techniques to sort and exploit data.
Much of this information can't be taken at face value.
Much of the time, it is fragmentary.
And in many cases, it might provide insight into potentially problematic activities only in light of some other, non-obvious piece of intelligence.
As such, our approach to information is 'critical' in both senses of the word.
Aside from managing intelligence flows at the concrete, tactical level, it's essential that an organisation like ASIO keeps its eye on the big picture.
Historically, major geopolitical trends and events taking place elsewhere have deeply influenced Australia's domestic security environment .
As globalisation processes continue to interlink more and more spheres of life in more and more countries, these influences are much more dynamic.
As such, our analysts are engaged at the strategic level, surveying and critically examining longer-term domestic, regional and global trends and patterns with regard to their actual and potential security consequences.
And, more and more, as collaborative work across government continues to expand, such judgements are weighed and tested through inter-agency processes.
My second concern relates to the position apparently adopted by some proponents of 'critical terrorism studies', which finds fault with practitioners and institutions that choose to prioritise
'topics tailored to the demands of policy-makers for practically useful knowledge in the fight against terrorism'.
Surely practically useful knowledge in the fight against terrorism is an unequivocal public good. And universities, including Edith Cowan, that promote the development of such knowledge would, I suspect, find strong support among the Australian public. *
- Particularly if the findings of the recent Lowy Institute Poll in which 'combating international terrorism' and 'protecting Australian citizens abroad' ranked second and fourth respectively, in terms of Australia's most important foreign policy goals are an accurate gauge of public opinion.
Research aiming to deliver practically useful knowledge is particularly valuable given the appetite within government to engage constructively and more broadly with the academic community.
For our part, ASIO is seeking to engage the scholarly community in a more concerted way.
This is because I see constructive dialogue between academics and the Australian intelligence community as a healthy thing, not just for us, but for scholars working in the field.
- This view was confirmed, incidentally, after ASIO invited a selection of prominent academics and representatives from think tanks to a Security Intelligence Seminar earlier in the year.
- This enabled an informative, mutually-beneficial, two-way exchange, and, given its success, the Organisation intends to look for further opportunities to engage with the academic community.
As I noted earlier, I also see greater scope for developing collaborative partnerships with tertiary institutions in various areas of applied research.
Tertiary institutions could contribute across a range of intelligence disciplines, whether through applied research partnerships with government agencies, or by furnishing graduates capable of deploying their skills in positions ranging from intelligence analysts to protective security specialists.
The areas that might be explored further include developing curricula in particular applied security fields, as well as focused research and development programs areas in which Edith Cowan currently contributes.
A career with ASIO our recruitment processes
In offering strong programs such as the Bachelor of Science (Security and Justice Studies) and the Bachelor of Counter Terrorism Security and Intelligence, Edith Cowan is, in my view, at the forefront of constructive efforts by our universities to assist Australia's ability to respond to the challenges of the security environment.
Your courses provide a mixture of theoretical and practical knowledge and skills, thereby preparing your graduates for rewarding careers in Australia's defence and national security organisations, whether as intelligence analysts, intelligence officers, or specialists in information technology or protective security.
I promised at the start of my talk to do a bit of marketing, so I would like to briefly mention ASIO's ongoing recruitment processes.
I hope you don't mind, Vice-Chancellor, if I use the privilege of this lectern to advocate gently to students in the audience, that, after investing, or planning to invest, three or four years of their life studying these disciplines, it makes sense to apply for a career in an Organisation working at the cutting edge in many of these areas.
Central to ASIO's ability to rise to the challenges of the present and future security environment is the quality and commitment of our staff.
Having placed ASIO's work in the broader context of supporting and protecting Australia's national institutions, our democratic system of government, and the rights of our citizens, I hope I have provided potential graduates with a sense of the meaning and value of such a career.
You may have noticed that ASIO has been conducting a series of innovative and targeted recruitment campaigns on the radio and through on-line, electronic, and print media.
These campaigns aim to lift our profile among jobseekers, including graduates and people holding post-graduate qualifications, by providing tantalising glimpses of the challenging and rewarding careers we can offer successful applicants.
Through these campaigns, and through our participation in university career days, we continue to attract high quality applicants across all of our functions and specialties.
So what does it take to get through our doors?
All applicants must be able to gain a top secret security clearance.
Beyond this requirement, we're looking for a variety of people with a wide range of skills and qualifications and the attributes it takes to be a good ASIO officer.
While the precise qualifications and requirements may vary between roles, it's fair to say we need people who are clever and courageous; ethical and flexible; and emotionally stable and robust.
People who are discreet, can keep secrets, and can bring flair and imagination to the task of detecting the secrets of those planning to do Australia or Australians harm.
We're looking for people who enjoy testing themselves against important challenges not found in many other jobs.
People who appreciate an organisation that is willing:
- to invest in them over the long term,
- to provide training and development opportunities;
- to offer diverse and interesting career paths; and
- to provide real opportunities to excel.
People who, above all, value, and want to help protect, Australia's democratic system of government, and our tolerant, open society.
While ASIO is looking to attract graduates and others with diverse qualifications, skill-sets and life experiences, if you're currently taking one of Edith Cowan's security-related programs of study, you may well find yourself ahead of the pack.
You'll never know unless you give it a go
Even if you think now may not be the right time to apply to join ASIO, I'd ask that you keep us in mind for the future.
Public service remains, in my view, one of the highest and most meaningful vocations.
- Although I am partial, admittedly, having spent my career working in various departments of state.
Public service in the field of national security is surely one of the most important.
In fact, the Prime Minister, the Hon Kevin Rudd, and the Attorney-General, the Hon Robert McClelland, have said that the nation's security is the first priority of government.
This priority is challenging and pressing given a security environment that includes, among others, anti-Western jihadist groups and networks that, without mincing words, remain actively committed to carrying out mass casualty terrorist attacks.
How we deal with such an environment presents the nation with significant choices, and invariably, and rightly, these choices are subject to ongoing public debate and discussion.
The quality of this discussion in Australia tends, on the whole, to be high.
Although, on occasion, one can be left with the impression that security and liberty, or security and the values of liberal democracy, are somehow frozen in a zero-sum game: to have more of one is always to have less of the other.
There is, however, as I've discussed, a positive and enabling relationship between properly performing security services and the core norms and values of liberal democracy.
Such a relationship doesn't happen by chance. It requires that agencies with unique powers and responsibilities work within a strong accountability framework, like the one ASIO currently operates within.
It requires that security services adopt a forthright and critical disposition when it comes to developing and honing approaches to collecting, analysing and providing quality intelligence and advice whether at the tactical or strategic levels to those in government who need to know.
And it involves an ability, like other areas of the public service, to attract high calibre staff who are committed to making a positive difference.
With regard to developing the knowledge-base and skills required to deal with the nation's security challenges, ASIO obviously can't do this alone.
We need to engage constructively with other key institutions, including the university sector, to leverage high-end technical skills, to expand the horizons of security-related research and development, and to benefit from well-qualified potential recruits across a range of disciplines.
May I conclude by acknowledging the strong contribution Edith Cowan University is making across each of these areas, and by thanking you once again for your invitation for me to speak today.