The appalling attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on 15 March 2019 have left the country reeling. Horror and tears, including mine, are mixing with anger and demands for retribution. Families are mourning their loss and thousands of New Zealanders are showing their support. Politicians are scrambling to take decisive action to ensure this type of attack never takes place again. The tragedy is that it probably will if current practices prevail. On 15 March, New Zealand’s intelligence community was defeated in detail.
Defeat in detail is a military term but it can also be applied to this type of situation. Normally used in relation to the use of overwhelming force to isolate and defeat smaller groups of enemies in sequence (divide and conquer), all commanders are taught about the consequences in reverse. That is when you have the superior force but you commit it in an uncoordinated or piecemeal way and lose a series of smaller engagements until you are no longer superior.
New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement. We have record numbers of intelligence staff spread across the Police, Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), Security Intelligence Service (SIS), National Assessments Bureau (NAB – sited within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – DPMC), Customs, Immigration, Primary Industries, Foreign Affairs and Defence Force to name just the big units. Hosted within SIS is the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG) which was established in 2004 by the Clark government ostensibly to break down intelligence silos. The Prime Minister is also the Minister for National Security – a portfolio that had no vote in last year’s budget and, according to Hon Andrew Little, the Minister of Justice, there were no plans to fund it when I asked him in April 2018.
Despite all this resource, the attacker (who I intend to never name), effectively hid in the open. But was he really that invisible? Various reports show him posting his intentions in chatrooms (like the attacker, I don’t intend to give these miscreant gathering points any airtime). What ended the massacre was the bravery of Abdul Aziz at the Linwood Mosque and two Police officers who took the initiative, rammed the attacker’s car and neutralized him. An improvised explosive device was reported found in the attacker’s vehicle.
Overlaid on the compassion for the victims, who are now burying their loved ones and coming to grips with their wounds, is the predictable political scramble to be seen to be in control of what is a mess. First cab off the rank is gun control. The first substantial statement from the Prime Minister after commiserations and “They are us” was an announcement that NZ’s gun laws would change. Unsurprising really and I predict that there will be a buy-back of military style semi-automatic rifles (MSSA) such as the AR15 used in the massacre and a national registry by weapon and serial number. The shotgun and hunting rifle the attacker also used will be too politically sensitive to deal with as will adoption of the 1997 Thorp Report recommendation that firearms licences be reduced from 10 years to 3.
Getting a firearms licence has already been tightened up with the requirement to attend a course before applying. However, the use of gun clubs to improve standards may well be in jeopardy after the Police non-response to a complaint about the culture at the attacker’s club. At my last licence renewal (I have a .22 rifle for those thinking I’m a gun enthusiast), the vetting officer spent as long talking to my wife as he did to me or inspecting my gun safe. Even with the most stringent security procedures, the NZ Defence Force has lost weapons in the past. Criminals don’t register guns but they do trade in them. Some are stolen and others come off boats in the night. Weapons are modified from legal to illegal and we have not yet seen the wave of 3D printed guns for which plans exist on the internet. Arms control is like a game of ‘Whack-a-Mole’. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try but we should have realistic expectations about the effect it will have. A determined attacker will acquire the weapons and devices to pursue their intent. It is the individual behaviour that has to remain our focus.
Worldwide experience of military operations has shown that the harder the target, the more inventive the attacker becomes. In Afghanistan, for instance, the introduction of Light Armoured Vehicles to increase protection for our troops resulted in bigger IEDs. When signal-jamming stopped the use of cell phones to detonate roadside bombs, command or victim (pressure-plate) initiated devices appeared. What do we do when the next domestic attack involves a bomb or chemical weapon?
On 18 March, the PM announced inquiries into the SIS and GCSB. The respective Directors of those agencies welcomed the inquiries – as if they had any choice. This is just a throw-away media line. The outcome is predictable. There will be a muffled acknowledgement that they could have done better and have developed an action plan to improve inter-agency intelligence sharing. No-one will be sacked or resign – there will just be ‘learnings going forward.’ They will call for more resources and legislation to increase surveillance capability in social media and of hate groups.
It is my opinion that all the laws and resources needed already exist within the broader government purview but they are not effectively organised or executed. I think of intelligence capacity in this country as I do of Special Forces in the USA. Everyone wants their own fiefdom and competes with others for the resources to do so and to ‘be the best.’
I have written frequently on my belief that the solution lies in removing and therefore de-politicizing the NAB function from DPMC. Getting the CTAG out of SIS is logical too. There is a real need for a fresh set of eyes on national security and it could be fiscally neutral.
New Zealand needs a National Security Advisor. Not for political optics but for independence and the ability to bring together the many coloured threads required for the cloak of national security.
To be truly independent and in order to maintain national security policy momentum across electoral cycles, the National Security Advisor should be an Officer of Parliament. They would operate as an independent crown entity under separate legislation and budget in the same manner as officers such as the Auditor-General. The appointment should be at least five years.
This new National Security Agency would become the focal point for intelligence as well as national security-related research going on in New Zealand universities, think tanks, international links and industry. It would be the strategy bridge for new policy initiatives. It could also provide some security audit functions. Most importantly, it is the place where a coherent national security strategy will be formulated. The Minister for National Security – the Prime Minister – would be more than just a title. It’s not a panacea but it’s a good start in breaking down the silos.
The Legislation Virus
NZ politicians love to legislate. It’s like a virus that once contracted can’t be shaken off. If that was always the solution, the country would be in great shape. There will be firearms legislation passed under urgency and then the wait for the inquiry reports. These will need a few million dollars of course. They will make a raft of recommendations that, by and large, will result in new and amended legislation increasing powers of search, surveillance and penalties for various acts. There will be twelve ten-minute speeches at each reading, a select committee report on public consultation and a vote. And that is how civil liberties, hard-won over thousands of years, will be further eroded – with applause and back-slapping. Defeat in detail.
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