Christchurch mosque shootings: Royal Commission avoids simple answers about mass surveillance

OPINION:

The most simple finding by the Royal Commission in the March 15 massacre would have been to identify a major failing by a single organisation that would otherwise have prevented the white supremacist’s murder of 51 people.

If the Royal Commission had come even close to that, a resignation by a chief executive or a minister – or both – may have been demanded today.

It might have been seen as a simple and swift means of getting accountability.

But the commission has done its job exceptionally well to explain context rather than relying on simple answers.

Any suggestion that the security agencies are keeping a close watch on the population, and should have picked up suspect activity, is dispelled.

“The idea that intelligence and security agencies engage in mass surveillance of New Zealanders is myth,” it said.

It not only finds that there is no single agency to blame, but it finds that had successive Parliaments addressed lax regulation of semi-automatic firearms earlier, it might have prevented the attack in March 2019.

It says that given the way the terrorist operated, the legal restraints of the security agencies and the capacity of counter-terrorism within the agencies “there was no plausible way he could have been detected except by chance”.

It does say that with the benefit of hindsight, a counter-terrorism strategy that encouraged the public to come forward with concerns might have been the best way to detect or disrupt him.

But one of the reasons such strategies had not been adopted had been to avoid stigmatising Muslim communities further.

The Security Intelligence Service would have been most vulnerable to a finding of culpability. And while the commission finds there was a disproportionate emphasis on potential Islamic threats, the attack occurred in the midst of a reform period for the agency in terms of resources and focus under the leadership of Rebecca Kitteridge.

The concentration on Islamist extremist terrorism was not to the exclusion of following leads on possible right-wing extremist terrorism when they arose.

Another reason that would not have been possible is the deep suspicion there is between the security agencies and the public – a lack of trust which Opposition politicians encouraged in the past 10 years when suggesting that they engaged in, or were planning to engage in, mass surveillance.

Again politicians should accept some responsibility in this regards.

As the Royal Commission put it, the intelligence and security agencies have comparatively little social licence.

Apologies have been made by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster and Security Intelligence Service director-general Rebecca Kitteridge, and a commitment given to accept all 44 of the report’s recommendations.

The hard work begins now. The commission’s recommendation to create a new national intelligence and security agency is sound.

It will not replace the operational work of the SIS but as well as providing the strategic leadership for counter-terrorism to set priorities.

It can also be the agency that requires engagement with the public – which is an essential element to building trust in security services.

Ardern’s responses will see some work done quickly, such as providing support to the families of victims and survivors of the massacre. Some will require more time, most notably changes to hate speech laws.

Ardern is to be commended for deciding to consult widely on changes to hate speech in an attempt to get cross-party support from National.

Anything that impinges on freedom of expression will be fraught and should not be rushed.

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