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Why national security should be subjected to the same rules as health authorities

the-nsa-trained-edward-snowden-to-be-an-elite-hackerBy Simon Davies

Just for a moment, let’s imagine the unimaginable. Imagine that national security agencies were forced to undergo the same competition and internal market tests that apply, increasingly, to other government agencies.

It’s a wild thought, but a tantalizing one. What would happen if national security agencies had to present an actual case to secure their budgets: measurable, evidence-based arguments based on a framework of accountable processes?

In most countries, security budgets are locked in through a series of in-camera submissions by spy chiefs to committees and ministers followed by a pony-show appearance before some form of public accounts committee.

Historically, security services survive on the subjunctive – the “what if”. What if we didn’t identify a terrorist plot? What if there was a planned revolution and we didn’t see it? What if the Chinese gained an advantage over our country’s crude oil bid?

Rare exceptions aside, government departments can’t get away with living in the world of the subjunctive. They are required to quantify risks and benefits. Public disease control departments gain their budgets in the margin of the measurably possible, not the speculative. They tell parliaments what is plausible and then identify the spectrum of likely outcomes for the country. They then run prevention and mitigation mapping that shows how much an increased budget will reduce risk and be cost effective.

Not so the security agencies. Their subjunctive narrative is limitless, bolstered not just by an “if you knew what we know” mantra, but also a beautifully crafted equation that works along the following lines:

If incidents of terrorism are shown to have declined, agencies can say this trend is the result of more efficient security, and if the trend is to continue budgets need to be increased to keep pace with new technologies. If terrorist incidents rise, then the budgets are increased without question.

Australian security services are presently arguing for increased powers on this very basis.

Of course the instinctive response from many people is that you can’t put a price on the protection of life. This is an utter fallacy. Public health budgets innately play god over life and death, often – for example – moving financial allocation from more effective preventative programs to more politically sensitive crisis programs.

There is a stark precedent for a more robust and accountable framework for security budgets and programs. In January 2014 the deputy director of the National Security Agency (NSA), John Inglis, made an important admission that – remarkably – received scant media attention. Inglis conceded that – at most – one terrorist attack might possibly have been thwarted by the agency’s metadata mass surveillance operations. That rare moment of quantification at last put some of the present controversy over mass surveillance into perspective and resulted in a palpable shift in White House thinking.

In most countries, security budgets are locked in through a series of in-camera submissions by spy chiefs to committees and ministers followed by a pony-show appearance before some form of public accounts committee. The secret submissions are then redacted and presented as a fait accompli to Treasuries. Consequently, there is little motivation for agencies to perform either more effectively or more lawfully. 

The current problem with security budgets is that they are based on assertions that often require disproving a negative, rather than being based on positive claims that can be assessed in their own right

Compare this situation with the process for police budgets. There, law enforcement authorities (LEA’s) must generally operate in the light, arguing their case on the basis of statistics and outcomes. Sure, their methodology is frequently flawed and deceptive, but in the end they have to prove a case if they want more money.

Quantification is the key. If police believe they need more money to prevent mass murder, they have to prove the case by establishing that more automatic weapons have appeared on the streets. These claims are then tested.

The current problem with security budgets is that they are based on assertions that often require disproving a negative, rather than being based on positive claims that can be assessed in their own right.

It’s useful to step back for a moment and consider the possible scale and magnitude of a “threat” that justifies such secrecy. Could it be a greater threat than, say, firearms deaths?

To consider this point it’s not necessary just to think about the 12,000 people killed each year in the US by firearms. Each year, US police are implicated in the shooting deaths of between five and six hundred people. To put the figure in perspective, that’s more than twelve times the number of lawful executions across the nation – except that in the police situation, most of the victims are later declared innocent.

In human terms, this is a sobering statistic. Spread over twelve years it represents double the number of deaths on 9/11 and it exceeds the total number of US fatalities in the Iraq conflicts. As the CATO Institute put it: “you’re eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist”.

Budgets should never be authorized for operations that hover outside the law – and those assessments should be rigorously stipulated to at least the same extent as they apply to anyone else.

And yet, even in these circumstances, police budgets aimed at quantifiably resolving this tragic situation must be fully accounted through public process. Where the general incidents of gun deaths can be submerged in questions of social dysfunction and economic policy, the causes of killings by police can be far more easily quantified and at least partially mitigated.

Even so, police budgets are rarely increased for purposes of better training, psychological profiling and internal processes that have a proven track record for reducing this scale of death – a scale of death that the security services still secretly treat as amorphous and speculative.

Few people would suggest that security services should be accountable to the same level of detail as the police, but there is scope for reform. Those bodies that receive in-camera evidence and which rubber-stamp budgets can be required to apply a much more rigorous basis of evidence. They can then be required to warrant the need for budgets not just on hearsay, but on the basis of tested data.

Finally, the legal compliance and due diligence procedures that apply generally to government agencies should be extended to security services. Budgets should never be authorized for operations that hover outside the law – and those assessments should be rigorously stipulated to at least the same extent as they apply to anyone else.