NATIONAL SECURITY: by John MillerNews Weekly
Is it ever too early to foil a terrorist plot?
, May 10, 2008
A former senior intelligence officer John Miller asks: how far can a terrorist plot be allowed to proceed before the authorities intervene and arrest suspects?How far can a terrorist plot be allowed to proceed before the authorities intervene and arrest suspects?
Intervene too late, and you risk the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack; but intervene too early, and instantly a thicket of legal problems arises.
It would be a tragedy beyond measure should we fail to address this question satisfactorily before an incident takes place on Australian soil.
Currently, there are at least four terrorist cases in the English-speaking world in various stages of prosecution.
One of them is the current British trial of eight radical Muslims accused of conspiring to organise suicide missions in 2006 to blow up seven transatlantic passenger jets bound from London for North America (see News Weekly
, April 26, 2008).
Another is a terrorist trial now underway in Melbourne, likely to be followed soon by one in Sydney. Both these local cases are doubtless connected with Operation Pendennis, a joint Australian Federal Police and ASIO covert effort which culminated in November 2005 with the arrests of 29 suspected terrorists in Melbourne and Sydney.Serious problems
However, recent overseas developments have highlighted serious problems faced by law-enforcement agencies in gaining successful convictions of terror suspects.
In two recent major US trials, jurors have failed to reach a verdict regarding seven suspects charged with plotting to blow up the FBI's Miami office and Chicago's 110-storey Sears Tower as part of a jihad to overthrow the US government.
Two similar but unconnected cases in the US and one in Canada have also resulted in deadlocked juries.
According to the Washington Post
, the US Justice Department's domestic terrorism strategy has been criticised for "its early strategy for going after home-grown terrorist cells and the people who fund plots well before deadly events occur." (Washington Post
, April 21, 2008).
In the United Kingdom, a case against five young Muslims who downloaded extremist propaganda with specific terrorist connotations was thrown out of an appellate court, prompting fears "that dozens of antiterrorist investigations and prosecutions would be placed in jeopardy as a consequence" (London Times
, February 15, 2008).
The problem for law-enforcement agencies engaged in counter-terrorism is quite simple. If an informant infiltrates a group planning a terrorist attack - or, alternatively, if the authorities succeed in effectively recruiting a member of such a group - to what degree does this constitute entrapment?
US authorities in the past have had mixed success with "sting" operations in widely diverse areas, including organised crime, espionage and terrorism. However, the Washington Times
has observed: "Jurors appear to be particularly troubled by a controversial element in the Miami case, part of several other early prosecutions, in which FBI informants encouraged others to perform acts they otherwise may not have done."
Australia's security and intelligence authorities face similar problems in obtaining conclusive evidence with which to convict suspected terrorists. In addition to that, they face a distinctly hostile constituency in legal, civil libertarian and other activist political circles.Prosecution
This problem has not been helped by such farcical episodes as last year's ill-advised prosecution of the Pakistani student Izhar Ul-Haque, an officially sanctioned so-called test of the then Howard Government's anti-terrorism legislation.
The authorities, having failed to recruit the young man, decided on their Plan B - prosecution.
The result was humiliation of the government prosecution case and a justifiable excoriation of witnesses, delivered by Justice Michael Adams in his judgement in the New South Wales Supreme Court on November 5, 2007.
These setbacks, however, are no excuse for Australians to be apathetic or to shrug off the need for vigilance against the ever-growing terrorist menace.
Don't they know there's a war on?!
A former US Secretary of State Dean Rusk once famously remarked, "Democracies have paid a fearful price for refusing to believe that dictators mean what they say." He was referring to the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Castro and other mass-murderers of the 20th century.
Today we face a different but nonetheless lethal threat from well-financed international terrorist organisations, and we must not fail to heed their oft-stated intentions to eradicate us.
Osama bin Laden has twice declared war on America and its allies; but his utterances on these occasions are seldom remembered for long, and their significance is not appreciated.
The West is facing an insurrectionist conflict in which a militant religious ideology and its followers across the globe are intent on waging total war against our way of life. But try to talk to another person about the Islamic concept of the umma or the caliphate and their eyes glaze over in boredom.
Yet, reduced to its essentials, the aim of bin Laden and his sympathisers is nothing less than the destruction of our freedoms and liberties and the imposition of Sharia law on Western society.
Meanwhile, in the Western media and universities, the US and its allies, unfortunately, are all too often held up to ridicule as being the real aggressors.
Australia has yet to pay the price of a terrorist outrage on its own soil, but the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005 remain a poignant portent of what could happen.
Today, the global terrorist threat to free countries, including Australia, is greater than ever.Suicide-bombers
In November 2006 - only months after the arrests of the suspected would-be suicide-bombers currently on trial in London - the then head of Britain's security service MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, revealed that her agents and the British police were tracking "some 200 groupings or networks, totalling over 1,600 identified individuals" (from a pool of 100,000 sympathisers) who were "actively engaged in plotting, or facilitating, terrorist acts here and overseas".
Only recently, the British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has confirmed that the terrorism threat facing the UK is "severe" and "growing", and stated that the British authorities are currently monitoring 2,000 individuals, including 200 networks and 30 active plots (BBC News
and UK News of the World
, April 13, 2008).
Much of the Australian public, however, seems barely conscious that its own security and intelligence bodies are obliged to conduct a covert counter-terrorism campaign of similar proportionate magnitude.
Recently, information came to light about the disposition of scarce operational resources used in the controversial case of Dr Mohammed Haneef, who was detained last year in Brisbane over his alleged links with British bomb-plotters.
The number of staff, drawn from many organisations, and the sheer number of hours that were devoted to just this one operation beggar belief. This was revealed in the Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty's testimony before the Senate standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs on February 18, 2008.
This one operation is presumably only the tip of the iceberg.
To date we have had no statement from the Attorney-General or Prime Minister on the estimated numbers of suspected terrorists under surveillance in Australia like the figures given to the British public.
There is a fine line in deciding how wise it is to release such information to the public.
The UK's justification is doubtless based on its success in nipping in the bud at least some planned terrorist attacks.
Therefore the obvious and vital question must be asked: how far can a plot be allowed to proceed before intervention and the arrest of suspects?- John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.