Ahmed Ibrahim, Edith Cowan University and Paul Haskell-Dowland, Edith Cowan UniversityOver the past few years, tensions have been rising between Russia and the United States — not in conventional military terms, but in cyberspace. The issue came to a head at this month’s summit in Geneva, when US President Joe Biden threatened reprisals over allegedly Russian-backed cyber-attacks on US targets.
This confrontation first rose to global attention in 2016, when the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported Russia had directly influenced the outcome of the presidential election, favouring the Republican candidate Donald Trump by hacking and leaking 60,000 emails from the private account of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign director.
Then, in 2020, a major cyber attack on IT firm SolarWinds compromised the security of a wide range of US government and industry entities, including the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.
Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held Russia responsible for the incident, although Trump himself went against the consensus, seeking to downplay the attack and blame China instead.
Microsoft president Brad Smith described it as the “largest and most sophisticated attack the world has ever seen”. Microsoft began investigating the attack after many of its customers were caught up in it, including major tech companies and federal agencies.
Russia denied any involvement in the SolarWinds incident, publicly rejecting what it described as “unfounded attempts of the US media to blame Russia for hacker attacks on US governmental bodies”.
The attack was ultimately attributed to a cyber-criminal group called Nobelium, which has continued to be active and allegedly perpetrated a series of cyber-attacks earlier this year, although there is no clear evidence it did so with Kremlin backing.
Fuel pipelines and black angus steak
That was followed last month by an attack on meat processor JBS, shutting down parts of its operations in the US, Canada and Australia, and severely disrupting global meat supplies. This time the FBI pointed the finger at REvil, another profitable Russian-based cyber-criminal group.
In both of these cases, the victims reportedly paid ransoms to resume their operations. While this is expensive and arguably encourages future attacks, disruptions in operations can be even more costly.
The FBI claims to have recovered more than US$2 million of the ransom paid by the Colonial Pipeline Company.
A few weeks before the Colonial Pipeline attack, the Biden administration imposed economic sanctions on Russia over its cyber-meddling in US elections. But the US has now understandably made combating ransomware attacks its top priority.
Does the US engage in similar activities?
The US is certainly known for its cyber-offensive capabilities. Perhaps the most widely reported engagement was the 2010 Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
In 2015, the US Cyber Command and National Security Agency successfully hacked key members of ISIS, while the following year Wikileaks revealed the CIA had developed a powerful suite of hacking tools.
The US has both the capability and the motivation to conduct extensive cyber-infiltration of its adversaries.
At this month’s US-Russia summit in Geneva, Biden talked about establishing cyber-norms and declaring certain critical infrastructure as off-limits.
This list identified 16 sectors that should be excluded from offensive action, including government facilities, IT systems, energy infrastructure, and food and agriculture — all four of which have come under suspected Russian-backed attack in recent years.
Some cyber-security advocates have criticised US strategies in recent years as being too weak. Biden’s comments at the Geneva summit seem to be an attempt to strike a firmer tone.
So is this the start of a cyber-war?
Cyberspace is considered the fifth domain for warfare, after land, sea, air and space. But the truth is that IT systems are now so ubiquitous that they are also firmly embedded in the four other domains too, meaning a successful cyber attack can weaken an enemy in many kinds of ways.
This in turn can make it hard to even define what counts as an offensive act of cyber-war, let alone identify the aggressor.
Although the Kremlin continues to deny any association with cyber-criminal gangs such as DarkSide or REvil, Russia nevertheless stands accused of giving them safe harbour.
How do we stop global cyber attacks?
The recent Ransomware Task Force report specifically attempted to address the issue of ransomware. But it also offers useful advice for countering state-backed cyber-crime. It recommends:
- coordinated, international diplomatic and law-enforcement efforts to confront cyber-threats
- establishing relevant agencies to manage cyber incidents
- internationally coordinated efforts to establish frameworks to help organisations that are subject to cyber-attacks.
Successfully stamping out international cyber-attacks will be tremendously hard, and is ultimately only achievable with good diplomacy, trust, cooperation and communication.
While global superpowers continue to sponsor cyber-attacks on foreign shores while decrying attacks against their own assets, all we end up with is the virtual equivalent of mutually assured destruction.
Jonathan Pryke, Australian National UniversityFor most of the last year, the Pacific Islands have been remarkably isolated from the devastating effects of the COVID crisis. By walling themselves off early from the outside world, most Pacific nations remain completely COVID free.
Historians will look back on this as a remarkable achievement by Pacific nations, and a great credit to the swift actions taken by their leaders.
While isolation has proven itself to be an effective preventative strategy, it is not a perfect one. Border closures have taken an severe toll on these nations’ fledgling economies.
And even the most robust border and quarantine control systems can break down. In the Pacific, the cracks are now starting to show.
Localised outbreaks and lockdowns
With a porous land border with Indonesia and weak quarantine controls, it’s remarkable the virus did not get out of control sooner. However, it is now running unchecked in the capital, Port Moresby, and has spread to every province in the country.
The health system came very close to complete breakdown in March, and despite hopeful signs of case numbers stabilising in the capital (now at a much higher level), the country remains in dire need of further assistance.
Fiji was the most successful nation in the region in containing community transmission a year ago. It, too, is now showing cracks in the armour.
In a familiar story, a soldier working at a quarantine facility caught the virus from a traveller who had recently returned from India. Now identified as the new and extremely infectious Indian strain, it has quickly spread.
Much of the country’s main island of Viti Levu is in lockdown as contact tracing is conducted. While Fiji is the most capable country in the region to handle an outbreak, it also comes at a terrible time for the tourism-dependent nation, which is desperate to reopen to the Australian and New Zealand markets.
Over in Vanuatu, the dead body of a Filipino sailor from a visiting cargo vessel that washed ashore on April 11 tested positive for the virus. The vessel is now in Australian waters, with all but one of the 12 sailors on board testing positive for COVID-19.
Getting vaccines is step one
The solution to the Pacific’s imperfect isolation strategy is the same as Australia’s – vaccines.
Given the enormous global demand for vaccines, and the small size and limited bargaining power of Pacific Island nations, there has been a very real threat they would be left at the back of the queue in the vaccine scramble.
However, assertive work by donor nations like Australia and New Zealand, combined with access to the World Health Organisation-led global COVAX facility, has so far meant Pacific nations are not being left out in the cold.
The North Pacific nations of Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau are well on their way to being fully vaccinated courtesy of the United States’ Operation Warp Speed program.
Initial batches of between 4,800-132,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines have also been delivered to Fiji, Nauru, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu via the COVAX initiative.
Australia sent an emergency batch of 8,000 vaccine doses to PNG in March, and is now sending 10,000 locally produced AstraZeneca doses to the region each week. This number is likely to climb as production ramps up and the appetite for AstraZeneca wanes at home.
Both PNG and the Solomon Islands are adamant that they will not roll out the vaccine until it receives approval by the WHO, but the presence of Chinese vaccines ups the stakes for the vaccine diplomacy battle now underway in the Pacific.
Logistics are now the big challenge
Just two months ago, the worry for most Pacific nations was getting hold of vaccines. For many, the challenge has now quickly morphed to a larger, and much more challenging, question — how to roll them out.
There are enormous challenges involved with an effective rollout campaign in many countries, especially those with many islands like Kiribati or Solomon Islands or with large populations in remote communities spread across mountains and islands, like PNG.
Pacific leaders and health professionals also face widespread misinformation about vaccines, cultural stigma (many Pacific nations have never run an adult vaccination campaign), and logistical challenges related to cold chain storage and their already-stretched health systems.
Illustrating this point, of the 8,000 doses Australia provided to PNG more than a month ago, only 2,900 have been administered. While some nations, like Fiji, have quickly run through their allotted COVAX vaccines, others, such as PNG, run the risk of vaccines expiring before they get into people’s arms.
It will take a much more significant and coordinated effort from Pacific nations, and all of their donor counterparts, to effectively vaccinate the region.
A massive logistics campaign tailored to the needs of each nation must now get underway. NGOs, churches, and the private sector should all be expected to do their part. Alongside this, the Pacific nations need smart and widespread information campaigns to promote the efficacy and importance of the vaccines and help overcome misinformation and stigma.
If more concerted effort is not applied to getting needles into Pacific Islanders’ arms, then at best these countries will be left behind as other economies open up to one another, and at worst quarantine systems will fail and the virus itself will overwhelm their vulnerable systems.
The Pacific region has done extremely well in combating the COVID crisis to date. Let’s not stop now.
The first I heard of the “Plandemic” video was when a friend shared it on her Facebook. “I’m pro-vaccine,” was her accompanying statement. “And I’m not a conspiracy theorist.”
For those who don’t know, Plandemic is a misinformation-driven viral video that’s garnered much attention in recent days.
It’s spreading numerous falsehoods about the COVID-19 pandemic, including that the virus is “activated” by face masks and hand-washing. And the major conspiracy, or the “plan”, as this article explains, is that:
… a secret society of billionaires around the world are plotting global domination, and they plan to control people through a vaccine.
Perhaps even more worrying is the level of traction such conspiracies receive. More than 100 people gathered in Melbourne last weekend, and some in Sydney, to protest lockdowns, tracking apps, vaccines and the public health philanthropy of billionaire Bill Gates. The protests were reportedly promoted on Facebook anti-vaxxing groups.
While Plandemic’s claims have been thoroughly debunked, my friend is exactly the kind of audience that should have policymakers worried.
Planting seeds of doubt
Conspiracy theorists – or “conspiracists” – generally take their place in the rich tapestry of life without causing too much trouble.
But with some governments caught off-guard by COVID-19 (making stuff up as they go), and public health experts wielding considerable power, conspiracists have fertile soil to plough. That soil is us.
The general public is uncertain, afraid, and experiencing cognitive impairment from the strain of it all. Governments overseas, most notably the US government, have failed dismally in responding efficiently to COVID-19. This has the potential to devastate citizens’ trust.
In this volatile cocktail, the distinction between what is “batshit crazy” and what is worryingly plausible starts to break down.
Reaping the harvest
Enter the organised anti-vaxxers, aligning with other conspiracists to spread misinformation and lead lockdown protests.
Underpinning their antics is the idea that COVID-19 is a highly organised operation, and also the accusation that governments will use lockdowns to forcibly medicate populations, perhaps with plans to incorporate a mind-controlling microchip in the vaccine.
For those who reject these premises, it’s hard to understand how conspiracists sustain this alternative reality. But for those with long histories of rejecting government and expert authority, it’s completely conceivable.
Many of those who reject vaccines, or strenuously object to COVID-19 health measures, are influenced by interconnected social groups with clear identities. Standing atop a hill of self-ascribed expertise, they can gaze down on the “sheeple” eating from the trough.
That may be why Australia is now seeing freedom-focused anti-lockdown protests you wouldn’t generally expect outside America.
Don’t fan the flames
Lockdown protesters remain small in number relative to the wider population. They also lack significant celebrity endorsement in Australia. Even the bizarre communications of disgraced My Kitchen Rules judge Pete Evans have not extended to lockdown resistance.
When it comes to lockdown protesters, it might be best to quietly ignore them, like a parent walking away from their child’s supermarket tantrum.
And lengthening the conversation unnecessarily could sway the minds of undecided onlookers.
That said, damage to public trust because of conspiracies is more complex.
It’s vital for governments to “keep the public’s ear” so they can maintain effective communication about what they are doing and why. This is crucial in retaining broad population support for the necessary health measures.
But they can’t bring everybody. And while dissent is not necessarily unhealthy, the burning question is where dissent leads us.
COVID-19 will likely divide people who have been lumped together by general society as “anti-vax”.
Some vaccine refusers are likely to find the COVID-19 vaccine is one they don’t want to skip. But for the diehard conspiracists, it’s the endgame.
These people know a large proportion of the population will need to receive it for normal life to resume. But if you believe vaccination to be unsafe, corrupt and toxic, the prospect of being pressured to receive one must be terrifying.
Who is in danger here?
When (or if) a COVID-19 vaccine does come along, will the broader population be able to accept some people’s refusal to vaccinate? There are two answers.
The first is epidemiological. We don’t know how many of us will need to be vaccinated, but the figure for other diseases such as measles is as high as 95%.
Also, as some people can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons and governments may struggle to reach some disadvantaged populations, the remaining 5% leaves little wiggle room for vaccine refusal within the wider population. If there is room for refusal, there isn’t much.
This brings us to the second, political, answer.
If anti-vaccination propagandists achieve widespread community resistance to government power, there will be many more of them than our vaccine coverage goals can tolerate. This will likely result in more coercive policies from governments.
In Australia and California, populations and governments have previously supported crackdowns on vaccine refusers precisely because these activists behaved in reprehensible ways, or because they made it easy for the majority to construct them as a hated group in need of punishment.
Remember, when we walk away from a child having a tantrum in a supermarket, we are also saving them from themselves – even if they can’t appreciate it.
Few people can fault the government’s zeal in staring down the coronavirus and steering a path for Australia to emerge on the other side ready to do business again.
Unlike the crowds amassing in some US cities to declare their scorn for “stay at home” rules, Australians, generally speaking, have been supportive of federal and state government strategies to tackle the pandemic.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has added a potential new weapon to his armoury – a COVID-19 tracing app. Government Services Minister Stuart Robert has been spruiking the plan to introduce the app, which is based on technology in use in Singapore.
But the idea of a government potentially monitoring our daily travels and interactions has drawn suspicion or even scorn. Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce says he won’t be downloading the app.
Robert has since gone on the offensive, explaining the process and playing down any concerns.
So if your app has been within 15 minutes’ duration of someone within 1.5 metres proximity, there’ll be a ping or swapping of phone numbers, and that’ll stay on your phone. And then of course if you test positive … you’ll give consent and those numbers will be provided securely to health professionals, and they’ll be able to call people you’ve been in contact with … Those numbers will be on your phone, nowhere else, encrypted. You can’t access them, no one else can.
Downloading the app is to be voluntary. But its effectiveness would be enhanced, Robert says, if a significant proportion of the population embraced the idea.
On ABC Radio National Breakfast this week he backed away from a previously mentioned minimum 40% community commitment. Instead, Robert said: “Any digital take-up … is of great value.”
He has strong support from other quarters. Epidemiologist Marion Kainer said the adoption of such an app would allow contact tracing to occur much more quickly.
Having the rapid contact tracing is essential in controlling this, so having an app may allow us to open up society to a much greater extent than if we didn’t have an app.
This all sounds well and good. But there are potential problems. Our starting point is that governments must ensure no policy sacrifices our democratic liberties in the pursuit of a goal that could be attained by other, less intrusive, schemes.
The immediate concern comes down to the age-old (and important) debate about how much freedom we are prepared to give up in fighting an existential threat, be it a virus, terrorism, or crime more generally.
Law academic Katharine Kemp last week highlighted her concerns about the dangers of adopting a poorly thought-through strategy before safeguards are in place.
The app, she said:
Other commentators have warned more broadly against “mission creep”: that is, with the tool in place, what’s to stop a government insisting upon an expanded surveillance tool down the track?
True, downloading the app is voluntary, but the government has threatened that the price of not volunteering is a longer time-frame for the current restrictions. That threat fails any “pub” test of voluntariness.
On the other hand, there is a privacy trade-off that most people are willing to make if the benefits are manifestly clear. For example, our in-car mapping devices are clever enough (based on the speed of other road users with similar devices) to warn us of traffic problems ahead.
Remember, too, that Australians have had a 20-year love affair with smart technologies. We’re a generation away from the naysayers who argued successfully against the Hawke government’s failed Australia Card in the mid-1980s.
By the same token, the Coalition does not have a strong record of inspiring confidence in large-scale data collection and retrieval. One need only recall the lack of enthusiasm healthcare provider organisations showed for the My Health Record system. In 2019, the National Audit Office found the system had failed to manage its cybersecurity risks adequately.
So where do we go from here? The government sought to allay public concerns about the metadata retention scheme, a program introduced in 2015 to amass private telecommunications data, by giving a role to the Commonwealth Ombudsman to assess police agencies’ compliance with their legislated powers. In the case of the COVID-19 tracing app, the government has, appropriately, enlisted the support of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. Robert has said:
Right now a privacy impact assessment is being conducted, the Privacy Commissioner is involved, and all of that will be made public.
While that is an admirable sentiment, one would hope the government would put specific legislation in place to set out all of the conditions of use, and that the commissioner would not be asked for her view unless and until that legislation is in order. The Law Council of Australia has today joined this chorus.
Once the commissioner gives the “all clear”, I will be happy to download the app. Let’s hope it then works as intended.
This week, Kristina Keneally announced plans by Labor to review the nation’s register of terrorist organisations.
ASIO sounded an alarm last month that far-right groups pose an elevated threat to Australian national security. Cells have met to salute the Nazi flag and train in combat. ASIO is now investigating twice as many far-right leads as last year.
However, to date, no far-right group has been banned in Australia. This sits in contrast to the UK, where National Action and other far-right groups are outlawed and members have been convicted of terror-related and other crimes.
Keneally asks whether our laws are fit for purpose. One year after the Christchurch massacre, it’s time to investigate whether enough is being done to address the far-right threat in this country.
How groups are listed on the terror register
The definition of terrorism underpins the way terror organisations are registered in both the UK and Australia. Australia designed its laws from a British template, so the definitions are very similar.
At its core, a “terrorist act” is defined as conduct with special characteristics – namely, the advancement of a “political, religious or ideological cause” and the coercion of government or the intimidation of the public.
There are two ways to counter far-right groups in Australia.
The first is through the proscription process, or the creation of a “list” or register of banned groups.
To list a group on the national register, Home Affairs reviews intelligence from ASIO and must be satisfied the group is directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning, assisting, fostering or advocating terrorism. There is huge symbolism in proscription. It is the highest level of disendorsement, as it can allow the government to label a political movement as criminal.
There is good reason for the government to be selective – many hundreds of groups can meet the broad definition of terrorism. For instance, any rebel group in a war zone fits the bill, including allies we arm, train and partner with, such as certain groups in Syria.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is therefore guided by discretionary factors, such as a group’s ties to Australia and its threat profile and nature of its ideology. Most groups on the terror list are large, well-resourced Islamist outfits such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda.
The second way to affix a terrorist label to a group is by satisfying a jury, at trial, that it meets the legal criteria of “terrorist organisation”. This process does not involve Home Affairs; the decision rests with the jury.
Smaller, home-grown cells have been tried in this way, such as the conviction of the Benbrika group (the “MCG plotters”) in 2006. The jury found they were members of a terrorist organisation despite their absence from the national terror register. As such, leaving a group off the list does not create a meaningful gap in the law.
This two-tiered approach allows flexibility. At times, a group might not have a name, or it might not be organised or have a public profile.
There might also be operational reasons for ministerial restraint for not listing a group, such as fear that public declarations could disrupt covert police investigations into its activities.
Why have far-right groups been banned in the UK?
So, what explains the difference between the UK and Australia when it comes to dealing with far-right groups?
Despite Keneally’s concern, there is no meaningful difference between proscription criteria in the two countries. The UK includes violence committed on racial grounds, but this is matched by our reference to ideological motive. The UK looks to those who “glorify” terrorism, but we include groups that “advocate” or “praise” similar conduct.
However, one way the two countries diverge may be in the scale of the threat.
National Action, a neo-Nazi group whose members have called for a “race war”, has a large following in the UK. Members cheered the murder of MP Jo Cox and have been jailed for plotting to kill other left-wing politicians.
The far-right in Australia may not yet have gained the same momentum.
Greater parliamentary powers over Home Affairs
Keneally is trying to figure out whether the failure to list far-right groups in Australia is due to the law, the lack of sufficient threat or the lack of political will.
But the law is fit for purpose, and ASIO has issued a serious public warning. What’s left hanging is politics.
Rather than review the criteria for proscription, Keneally should press for an enhanced role for parliament’s intelligence and security committee over Home Affairs.
Parliament’s intelligence and security committee can currently review (and veto) a decision by Dutton to add a group to the register of terror organisations. But the committee cannot intervene in cases Home Affairs deliberately rejects.
Perhaps an expanded parliamentary review function over the minister’s decision-making and the department’s method of prioritisation would give Keneally the answers she seeks.
In response to ASIO’s warning on far-right groups, Dutton was quick to label Islamists as “left-wing” extremists.
Despite Labor’s objections to this characterisation, Islamic extremist and “far-right” groups have much in common – all are driven by elements of hate, misogyny, supremacy, destruction and brands of extreme social conservatism. All deserve sober consideration, whatever the label, and without political distraction.
This is part of a new series looking at the national security challenges facing Australia, how our leaders are responding to them through legislation and how these measures are impacting society. Read the rest of the series here.
Until the terror attack in Christchurch in March, the threat of far-right terrorism in Australia was one we knew was coming, but believed was well over the horizon.
The sordid story of the Christchurch attacker – “ordinary Australian” turned hateful bigot turned mass-murdering terrorist – contains some uncomfortable truths for our country, not least of which is the fact that the threat of far-right extremism has arrived in the here and now.
Just as troubling, yet even more challenging because it is so insidious, are the clear links between the Christchurch shooter’s motivations and our mainstream political discourse. Facing up to this threat requires us changing our approach both to hateful extremism and toxic political discourse.
Police and counter-terrorism officials have long been warning us of the rising threat of far-right violent extremism. Over the past decade, this has emerged as the number one terrorist threat in America and a persistent and growing threat in Europe.
It’s tempting to say that had more resources been committed to tracking and monitoring far-right groups and individuals in Australia, the Christchurch terrorist perhaps could have been stopped.
But even in hindsight, things are not so clear. The Christchurch gunman was a lone actor with no previous history of significant violence, although his involvement in hateful extremism was well-known to family and friends.
This is the particular threat that keeps counter-terrorism experts awake at night, when so-called “cleanskins” (people with ostensibly spotless records) turn into lone-actor terrorists.
We are flying blind on far-right extremism
One clear lesson from Christchurch is that we need to pay more attention to hate speech and hate crimes.
It is true that “shit-posting” is a common occurrence on social media, and among all those people spouting off, it is extremely difficult to see who might become a violent extremist.
But clearly, we don’t understand the world of far-right extremism nearly as well as we should. We need a better way of monitoring and tracking far-right forums, social networks and the links between far-right individuals through their histories of travel and extremist communications.
We also have no centralised, national database of hate incidents. Hate crimes remain under-reported, poorly documented and de-prioritised to low levels of state policing.
The result is that we are flying blind. We don’t get to see the patterns between far-right groups and internet “shit-posters” because we are not collecting the data.
If we made it a priority at the state and federal level to document hate incidents, whether crimes or not, we would at least have a sense of when and where the problem is growing and who is most significantly involved.
This wouldn’t eliminate the threat of far-right extremism, but it might help stop the next massacre and it would certainly contribute to making Australian society more healthy, welcoming and just.
A disproportionate focus on Islamist terror threats
The September 11 attacks in America, and subsequent attacks by al-Qaeda in Bali, Madrid, London and elsewhere, triggered an enormous investment in counter-terrorism efforts in Australia.
This had barely begun to abate when the formation of the Islamic State (IS) caliphate in mid-2014 alerted us to the high rates of terror recruitment in Australia and prompted the raising of the national terrorism alert to the penultimate level in September 2014.
An intercepted phone call then triggered Australia’s largest-ever counter-terrorism operation. Shortly afterward, the Islamic State issued a call for random lone-actor attacks around the world and, within days, an 18-year-old launched a knife attack against two police officers in Melbourne.
These circumstances have led to 82 counter-terrorism laws being enacted in Australia since 2001, and 16 counter-terrorism operations since 2014, almost all of which have been responding to the threat posed by violent Islamist groups like al-Qaeda and IS.
This perception of the increased threat posed by these groups has resulted in a disproportionate investment in counter-terrorism compared with the response to the much greater threat posed by domestic violence.
At the same time, however, very little has been invested in preventative counter-terrorism measures, including countering far-right extremism.
A national discourse bound up in fear
We pride ourselves on being the world’s most successful multicultural society, yet we consistently turn a deaf ear to those who come up against hatred.
Just last month, for example, a new national survey found that 82% of Asian Australians, 81% of Australians of Middle Eastern background and 71% of Indigenous Australians had experienced some form of discrimination.
One reason why we are not yet ready to face up to this problem is that our national political discourse has for decades become bound up with the politics of fear, “othering”, and scapegoating minority communities.
When we demonise “illegal arrivals” and give license to the toxic rhetoric that we are being “swamped by Asians”, as Pauline Hanson put it in the late 1990s, or more recently “flooded by Muslims”, then we are buying into the core element of the narrative of terrorists like the Christchurch gunman.
In his manifesto, the gunman referenced the far-right extremist trope of “the great replacement” –
the fear that white Christian society is being overrun by brown-skinned, non-Christian people who are changing its culture and society irrevocably.
He picked up this idea from parts of Europe where there is strong antagonism to migrants and Muslims. But he referenced it directly from the writings of the Norwegian far-right terrorist who shot dead 69 people and blew up another eight in July 2011.
This same argument featured in the manifesto of the El Paso gunman who murdered 22 people at a Walmart store in Texas last month. In it, he praised the Christchurch shooter and warned of a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas.
These alt-right terrorists are driven in part by a fantasy of going from “zero to hero” in the alt-right internet world and becoming renowned as “warrior defenders”.
Prioritising far-right extremism
Prior to Christchurch, kicking the can down the road and prioritising other threats to our national security seemed an understandable, if not ideal response.
We now need to face the reality that of 50 terrorism-related deaths in the US last year, almost all involved far-right extremism. (Only one was linked to jihadi terrorism.) This is a pattern that’s been established for decades now. In fact, nearly three-quarters of all terrorist deaths in the US over the past decade have been linked to far-right extremism.
And while there is reason to hope the problem will never become quite so serious in Australia (despite the fact an Australian far-right extremist has murdered 51 people in another country), we need to do what we can now to counter the rise of hate speech and hate crimes – not later.
There are no quick fixes or guaranteed solutions, but these steps will make society better in ways that go far beyond the immediate threat of another terrorist attack.
Let’s start with a number. On any given day, more than 17 million barrels of oil pass through what is known as the world’s most important chokepoint.
Those 17 million-plus barrels constitute about 20%, give or take a few percentage points, of world oil consumption daily.
The waterway in question is the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Arabian Gulf to the north. It is 33km wide at its narrowest – where its “chokepoint” shipping lane measures just 3km across.
This is barely enough space for supertankers to pass.
Any interruption to seaborne oil-trade through the strait in the world’s most volatile region would immediately push up oil prices, add to risks of a global recession and prompt concerns about a wider conflagration in the Middle East.
The Strait of Hormuz is not simply a chokepoint. It would become a flashpoint in the event of military confrontation between the US and Iran.
It is hard to overstate the dangers of unintended consequences from an escalation of American military pressure on Iran that risks bringing the region to the brink of war and severing an economic lifeline to the rest of world.
This scenario hardly bears thinking about. Yet Donald Trump has seemed determined to push Iran to the brink by re-instituting punitive economic sanctions that are causing real hardship to Iranians.
What is at stake for the regime in Tehran is its survival. It will not yield to crude American pressures which reflect a certain mindset in Washington that appears to believe that regime change on the cheap is achievable.
At the heart of an escalating dispute between the US and Iran is the US withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal and re-imposition of sanctions, notwithstanding that Iran was complying with its obligations. Iran is now threatening to resume production of low-enriched uranium beyond amounts specified in the deal.
This agreement was negotiated over many months by the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany to forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Washington’s abrogation of it ranks as the most irresponsible act – among many – of the Trump administration.
America’s stringent sanctions that penalise entities that do business with Iran, allied with risks of conflict in the Gulf, are exerting enormous stress on the Western alliance.
American leadership in this case is perceived to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Vali Nasr, an Iranian specialist at the International Crisis Group, warns of a mistake or a miscalculation. He told The New York Times:
President Trump may not want war, but he will get one unless he balances coercion with diplomacy.
At this point, there is not much sign that American diplomacy provides a real prospect of an easing of tensions.
This week, the US announced it was deploying another 1,000 troops to the region to join more than 6,000 already in place. It has sent an aircraft carrier battle group to the Gulf, and has positioned B-52 bombers on bases in proximity to Iran.
All this is feeding high levels of anxiety in the Gulf region and across the Middle East. Further afield, markets across Europe, Asia and North America are nervously watching developments.
Whatever Washington’s strategy of exerting maximum pressure on Iran is, it is not working. It is also not clear whether there is a plan B.
America’s avowed aim is to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to force concessions on the nuclear deal. The US also wants the Iranians to scale back what Washington perceives to be their destabilising behaviour in the region.
This includes allegations Iran is behind a series of attacks in the Gulf on shipping tankers and oil pipelines in recent weeks. Iran denies involvement.
Circumstantial evidence of Iranian involvement is fairly compelling. But such is the damage done to Western intelligence credibility by mistakes in the lead-up to the Gulf War in 2003 that anything Washington says based on its own intelligence is questioned.
Let’s put forward another figure. The 17 million barrels passing through the Strait of Hormuz daily represent 30% of the world’s seaborne-traded oil.
Those shipments account for the bulk of oil shipped by the world’s major oil producers and OPEC members – Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
There’s another figure that is relevant. About 25% of the world’s traded liquefied natural gas (LNG) also transits what is arguably the world’s most strategically important waterway. Qatar, which matches Australia as the world’s largest exporter of LNG, sends almost all of its LNG through the strait.
In other words, this is a crowded energy superhighway by any standards.
The strait connects the Arabian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman to the south and the Arabian Sea beyond.
It is bounded on the eastern perimeter by Iran and to the west by the oil-rich Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia.
Tehran is certain to have a roster of retaliatory options starting, no doubt, with a further disruption to shipping in the Gulf. American naval forces could be deployed to keep Gulf sea lanes open, but this would come at a cost.
The most immediate cost would be felt in the world’s energy markets. What could not be discounted is another war in the Middle East and the destabilisation of the entire region.
These are dangerous moments.
The Australian Federal Police has this week conducted two high-profile raids on journalists who have exposed government secrets and their sources.
On Tuesday, seven AFP officers spent several hours searching News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s Canberra home, her mobile phone and computer. The AFP linked the raid to “the alleged publishing of information classified as an official secret”.
This stemmed from Smethurst’s 2018 article, which contained images of a “top secret” memo and reported that senior government officials were considering moves to empower the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to covertly monitor Australian citizens for the first time.
Soon after, 2GB Radio Presenter Ben Fordham revealed he had been notified by the Department of Home Affairs that he was the subject of a similar investigation, aimed at identifying the source of classified information he had reported regarding intercepted boat arrivals.
And then on Wednesday, the AFP raided the ABC’s Sydney headquarters. This dramatic development was in connection with the 2017 “Afghan files” report based on “hundreds of pages of secret defence force documents leaked to the ABC”. These documents revealed disturbing allegations of misconduct by Australian special forces.
The reaction to the raids was immediate and widespread.
The New York Times quoted News Corp’s description of the Smethurst raid as “a dangerous act of intimidation towards those committed to telling uncomfortable truths”. The Prime Minister was quick to distance his government from the AFP’s actions, while opposition leader Anthony Albanese condemned the raids.
But to those familiar with the ever-expanding field of Australian national security law, these developments were unlikely to surprise. In particular, enhanced data surveillance powers and a new suite of secrecy offences introduced in late 2018 had sparked widespread concern over the future of public interest journalism in Australia.
The crackdown of the past few days reveals that at least two of the core fears expressed by lawyers and the media industry were well-founded: first, the demise of source confidentiality and, secondly, a chilling effect on public interest journalism.
Upon finding out he was the subject of an investigation aimed at uncovering his sources of government information, Ben Fordham declared
The chances of me revealing my sources is zero. Not today, not tomorrow, next week or next month. There is not a hope in hell of that happening.
Source confidentiality is one of journalists’ most central ethical principles. It is recognised by the United Nations and is vital to a functioning democracy and free, independent, robust and effective media.
One of the greatest threats to source confidentiality is Australia’s uniquely broad data surveillance framework. The 2015 metadata retention scheme requires that all metadata (that is, data about a device or communication but not, say, the communication itself) be retained for two years. It may then be covertly accessed by a wide array of government agencies without a warrant. Some reports suggest that by late 2018, some 350,000 requests for access to metadata were being received by telecommunications service providers each year.
The government was not blind to the potential impact of this scheme on source confidentiality. For example, obtaining metadata relating to a journalist’s mobile phone could reveal where they go and who they contact and easily point to their sources.
This led to the introduction of the “Journalist Information Warrant” (JIW). This warrant is required if an agency wishes to access retained metadata for the direct purpose of identifying a professional journalist’s source.
So, access to a professional journalist’s metadata in order to identify a confidential source is permitted, provided the access has a particular criminal investigation or enforcement purpose and the agency can show it is in the public interest and therefore obtain a JIW.
This week’s raids suggest that either JIWs could not be obtained in relation to Smethurst, Fordham or the ABC Journalists, or the journalists’ metadata did not reveal their sources, or the AFP did not attempt to access their metadata.
Alternatively, if metadata had identified the journalists’ sources, it is less clear why these dramatic developments took place.
After 2015, journalists were advised to avoid using their mobile devices in source communications. They were also encouraged, wherever possible, to encrypt communications.
But in 2018, the government went some way to closing down this option when it introduced the complex and highly controversial Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018.
As well as expanding computer access and network access warrants, the Act provided a means for government agencies to co-opt those in the telecommunications industry to assist agencies with their investigations. This could include covertly installing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in specific devices, circumventing passwords or allowing encrypted communications to be decrypted. A warrant would then be required to access the device and communication data.
It is impossible to know whether Australian journalists have been targeted under the Act or had weaknesses or spyware installed on their personal devices. This week’s raids suggest the AFP would be prepared to target journalists under this framework in order to identify journalists’ confidential sources.
However, this could only be done for some purposes, including in the investigation of a secrecy offence.
In June 2018, the government introduced a suite of new espionage, foreign interference and secrecy offences. This included an offence of current or former Commonwealth officers communicating information, obtained by virtue of their position, likely to cause harm to Australia’s interests. This offence is punishable by imprisonment for seven years. If the information is security classified or the person held a security classification, then they may have committed an “aggravated offence” and be subject to ten years’ imprisonment.
This week’s raids reveal just how common it is for public interest journalism to rely on secret material and government sources.
But the journalists themselves may also be facing criminal prosecution. The 2018 changes include a “general secrecy offence”, whereby it is an offence (punishable by imprisonment for five years) to communicate classified information obtained from a Commonwealth public servant. Fordham’s radio broadcast about intercepted boat arrivals was, for example, a clear communication of classified information.
Again, journalists are offered some protection. If prosecuted, a journalist can seek to rely on the “journalism defence” by proving that they dealt with the information as a journalist, and that they reasonably believed the communication to be in the public interest. The meaning of “public interest” is unclear and, in this context, untested. However, it will take into account the public interest in national security and government integrity secrecy concerns as well as openness and accountability.
Protecting media freedom
Australia has more national security laws than any other nation. It is also the only liberal democracy lacking a Charter of Human Rights that would protect media freedom through, for example, rights to free speech and privacy.
In this context, journalists are in a precarious position – particularly journalists engaged in public interest journalism. This journalism is vital to government accountability and a vibrant democracy, but has a tense relationship with Australia’s national interests as conceived by government.
National security law has severely undercut source confidentiality by increasing and easing data surveillance. National security laws have also criminalised a wide array of conduct related to the handling of sensitive government information, both by government officers and the general public.
And these laws are just a few parts of a much larger national security framework that includes: control orders, preventative detention orders, ASIO questioning and detention warrants, secret evidence, and offences of espionage, foreign interference, advocating or supporting terrorism, and more.
JIWs, and the inclusion of a journalism defence to the secrecy offence, recognise the importance of a free press. However, each of these protections relies on a public interest test. When government claims of national security and the integrity of classifications is weighed into this balance, it is difficult to see how other interests might provide an effective counterbalance.
One of the most disturbing outcomes is not prosecutions or even the raids themselves, but the chilling of public interest journalism. Sources are less likely to come forward, facing risk to themselves and a high likelihood of identification by government agencies. And journalists are less likely to run stories, knowing the risks posed to their sources and perhaps even to themselves.
Against this background, the calls for a Media Freedom Act, such as by the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, have gained significant traction. It may take this kind of bold statement to cut across the complexities of individual laws and both recognise and protect the basic freedom of the press and the future of public interest journalism in Australia.