News that the US has a network of over one thousand agencies employing more than 800,000 people involved in counter-terrorism efforts comes as no surprise. The post 9/11 reaction to the threat of armed Islamicist extremism by the US government was as visceral as it was knee-jerk, with a blanket call put out to increase every aspect of the country’s counter-terrorism capability. From intelligence gathering to emergency response and everything in between, counter-terrorism agencies proliferated from the local to the state to the federal level, as did the number of private firms engaged in direct counter-terrorism efforts as well as support roles.
But there are problems with this expansion, and it is not just the waste of resources associated with the duplication of functions and overlapping of roles that comes with it. Nor are the problems confined to the US. Let me list a few.
Around the world concerns about terrorism has seen the expansion of government security apparatuses dedicated to fighting it. Intelligence agencies, police forces and the military of virtually all Western states, to say nothing of those in the Sunni Arab world, Africa, Asia and the Antipodes, have increased the amount of resources directed towards countering potential terrorist threats (South America is the exception to the rule because traditional inter-state rivalries and the lack of Islamicist grievances in the region have led authorities to focus attention elsewhere). In New Zealand, for example, both the Combined Threat Assessment Group (an inter-agency combine that analyses intelligence flows and threat assessments from such as the SIS, Police, NZDF, MoD, Immigration, Customs and Foreign Affairs) and the Counter Terrorism Tactical Assault Group (CTTAG, a combined military and police specialist unit trained to respond to terrorist incidents) were created after 9/11. Similar agencies now litter the state security landscape throughout the world.
Along with the proliferation of agencies comes increases in their funding and personnel, and more perniciously, the scope of their responsibilities. Again, in New Zealand this is evident in the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA), which is modeled on similar legislation in the UK and US and which gives broad powers to the government to infringe on basic civil liberties in its efforts to detect and stop suspected terrorism-related activities on NZ soil. The same goes for the Search and Surveillance bill now before parliament. In the US the so-called Patriot Act, which is still in force, grants US security agencies broad powers of arrest and detention on the mere suspicion of terrorism-linked behaviour. The expansion in both the number and legal authority of counter-terrorism agencies has been facilitated by politicians who, in an effort to not look weak on the issue of terrorism, approve budgetary increases and laws that fuel the growth of the counter-terrorism industry. In the post 9/11 rush to promote security, only a few brave politicians have attempted to resist the trampling of civil rights that the expansion of the security apparatus inevitably entails.
Besides the obvious problems that come with the “squeezing” of civil society by the security state (since the expansion of the state’s counter-terrorism powers come at the direct expense of the right to privacy and presumption of innocence), there is another downside that needs to be considered: the construction of threats in order to justify the existence of counter-terrorism networks. What is more, this phenomena extends beyond government security agencies and into private enterprise and academia.
In order to justify their existence, security agencies have to be able to identify and counter threats. In some countries the threats are real, as is the need to thwart them. But in much of the world the threat of terrorism is no more than it was in the 1990s, 1980s or 1970s. One such place is NZ. In these countries security agencies have a bureaucratic self-interest in identifying “threats,” because if there are no new threats then the rationale for their role and resource expansion goes out the window. Thus in 2005 the NZSIS identified “home grown jihadis” as the gravest security threat to NZ. A year later it dropped all reference to local Islamic extremists and highlighted foreign espionage networks operating on NZ soil. The following years have seen it highlight foreign-based computer hacking and industrial espionage as sources of concern. Each year appears to bring with it a new threat, even as the others are quietly dropped from annual reports.
Along with state security agencies conjuring up or exaggerating threats, so has an army of private security firms, including open source intelligence providers, security guard outfits and private military corporations sprung up to take advantage of the post 9/11 climate of fear. They bandwagon with state security agencies to emphasize the dangers of terrorism and other threats so as to nurture a client base for their services. The infamous Blackwater (now known as XE) private military corporation is an example of a “one-stop” private contractor that has its own intelligence, airborne, naval and ground units ready to serve both public and private clients for handsome fees (one of their latest ventures is in anti-piracy operations). Â Thousands of other such firms now dot the global security landscape, all emphasizing the dangers of Â the threat environment in the pursuit of profit. Not only does this industry work neatly with state security agencies’ agendas, but it further squeezes civil society in the measure that its surveillance capabilities and quasi-police powers increase as well.
Even academia is not immune from this trend. Over the last decade “counter-terrorism” centres have sprung up in dozens of universities world-wide. They receive their funding from governments, hold conferences, and churn out reports, books, even specialised journals that are dedicated to the subject (including “Perspectives on Terrorism” and “Terrorism and Political Violence,” although my favorite journal along these lines is “Small Wars and Insurgencies”). Here too the push is on to identify threats so as to justify continued funding. Places like Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, home of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, have dozens of highly paid researchers working on counter-terrorism and threat analysis projects (including one analyst at RSIS who declared that NZ faced a domestic Islamicist threat without ever having been to the country). Since funding for its facilities and personnel is directly related to its threat analyses, NTU has a vested interest in helping ensure that the perception of the global and regional threat environments is that they are variegated and “dense.” NTU is certainly not alone in pursuing the counter-terrorism dollar–this is a world-wide trend.
And of course, there are the countless terrorism “experts” that have sprung up as analysts and talking heads in the corporate media. No matter how tenuous their qualifications for discussing issues of threat posed by terrorism and irregular warfare groups, these pundits materially benefit from the exposure afforded to them by the sound-bite crowd.
Which brings up the thought for the day. Threats to international and national security do exist and terrorism is real. But pragmatic threat assessment and better use of extant security agencies and criminal law to counter terrorism have been overwhelmed by the urge to manipulate the impression of threats for individual, corporate, bureaucratic or political gain. That in turn has seen a shrinking of the civic space and private sphere in inverse proportion to the expansion of integrated (private-public) national security networks.
When money combines with a climate of fear, impressions of threat can be manipulated (if Â not invented) in order to pursue profit or bureaucratic power. Threat manipulation in pursuit of corporate self-interest and the expansion of state security apparatuses poses a serious risk to democratic society. In another life long before 9/11 I participated in actual threat assessment exercises for the US government. The ethos then was to call things as they were, objectively, so as to not allow political agendas or ideological bias to divert resources away from real dangers. Now that logic has been reversed: threat mitigation is seen as a potential source of income and power, with the more threats identified the more resources will be directed towards them by political elites and a fearful public. By that logic, counter-terrorism is the mother of all cash cows, and as NZ prepares to host the Rugby World Cup, we can assume that there will be plenty of interested parties working hard to milk it regardless of the real threat environment in which the tournament is held.