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'A solution looking for a problem': the downside to a Department of Homeland Security for Australia

Australia's record in preventing terrorist attacks is one of the best in the world, so why would you want to restructure the system responsible for it? This is the threshold question for the push to create a new mega-department  along the lines of the US Department of Homeland Security.

It's the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" argument. The political risk of a reorganisation was put starkly by a cabinet minister: "If the government did it, and a major attack occurred, you'd be crucified, and rightly so."

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Another minister asks: "Why turn the national security architecture on its head when every agency has advised the government that things are working well as they stand?" 

Two prime ministers, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, considered the creation of a unified mega-department along the lines of the American example. Both decided against it. So why go to the trouble and expense of a major upheaval? The central argument is that there is a pressing need for better co-ordination between the various security agencies.

"There are data jealousies between agencies, data gaps, a lack of full data sharing," says an official. "Co-operation at the moment is ad hoc, episodic and personalised. The only thing that keeps the system functional is personal relationships."

According to this official, the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney is a powerful case study showing the need for more co-ordination – "The Lindt inquest has exposed a pettiness between agencies about who would go in," the NSW Police insisting on their prerogative rather than calling in the Defence Department.

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It also exposed a question about the doctrine for dealing with a terrorist incident. The NSW Police doctrine was that a terrorist attack must be "contained" in one place to protect the public. Containment is best suited for a siege. 

"But," says the official "what if, instead of a siege, it turns out to be a marauding attack like the one in Mumbai in 2008 or the Paris Bataclan Theatre attack in 2015 where you have hits across the city?

"The police turn up with Glocks, no training, and miss the opportunity to nip it in the bud? They probably lose their lives unless you have cavalry to back them up.

"You can't just make it up on the day. You have to have a national strategy and local plans. This is about the Commonwealth showing leadership and  developing a plan."

The official proposes to have a national strategy "driven by a Homeland Security ministry working in collaboration with the states to quickly asses whether an incident is a siege or a marauding attack – and that will take a lot of tactical training – and next decide who to call in," whether police, SAS or commandos.

"None of that has been sorted. None of that has been intermediated. If, in future, there is a mass terror attack, that will all come out."

The proposed new department would be based on the existing Department of Immigration and Border Protection, which already includes the Australian Border Force. Four other existing agencies would then be added to create the new, enlarged Department of Homeland Security. All four are now within the Attorney-General's Department.

The bodies to be stripped out of the Attorney-General's Department would be the Australian Federal Police, the domestic spy agency ASIO (the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation), and two lesser-known agencies, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and Austrac, responsible for tracing illicit money flows.

Some agencies are explicitly excluded from this proposal. The Defence Department is excluded. So is its Australian Signals Directorate, the electronic spy agency. Also excluded is the overseas spy agency ASIS (the Australian Secret Intelligence Service), which resides in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

One obvious question: Has the American Department of Homeland Security been successful?

It is the result of a merger of 22 agencies, formed after the September 11 terror attacks in response to the fatal problem of poor co-operation between agencies.

The US has not suffered any terrorist attacks on such a scale since, but it has suffered many deadly attacks nonetheless. Since 2010 alone, there have been 19 that killed innocent people. Deadliest were the Orlando nightclub massacre that killed 49 people last year and the San Bernardino shooting that killed 14 the year before. The Boston marathon bombing killed five in 2013.

Much else has changed in the US security agencies since September 11 too, apart from the creation of the new department. A former deputy director of the FBI, John Pistole, said that before the attacks, "counter-terrorism, frankly, just wasn't one of the priorities" for that agency. Now it's foremost. He said that the internal change in the FBI was "beyond a paradigm shift".

A stark change was border policing. Pistole said last year that in 2001 "there were something like 16 people on the no-fly list. Today there are 48,000."

Likewise the CIA. Former deputy director John McLaughlin said that before September 11 "we had just been through a decade of reductions in force, about 23 per cent in budget and personnel ... I always described us as 300 people spread-eagle across a dyke" in counter-terror.  

"After 9/11, resources flowed back ...We got new authorities to do things we'd never done before."

All these changes were independent of the creation of a homeland security department. And Australia's agencies, too, have transformed in response to the lessons of September 11 and other attacks.

Did the US merger solve the problem of data jealousies and data gaps or data "silos"?

Fourteen years after its creation,  the Department of Homeland Security's inspector-general, John Roth, said in congressional testimony last month: "DHS' primary challenge moving forward is transitioning from an organisation of 22 semi-independent components, each conducting its affairs without regard to, and often without knowledge of, other DHS components' programs and operations, to a more cohesive entity focused on the central mission of protecting the homeland. A lack of co-ordination and unity occurs in all aspects of DHS' programs." 

An Australian minister says that a new mega-department would not improve Commonwealth-state co-ordination: "In counter-terrorism policing, the key relationship is between the Australian Federal Police and the state and territory police forces – it would be much harder to co-ordinate if the AFP themselves were caught up in a large superstructure."

The proposed change, he said, was "a solution in search of a problem".

The decision rests with Malcolm Turnbull and, just now, it's in the balance.

Peter Hartcher is international editor.

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