Inflating the terrorism risk

23:18, Nov 08 2014
John Key
Prime Minister John Key.

"I don't want to overstate the risk," Prime Minister John Key said in his much-amped speech on the growing threat of Islamic terrorism.

You might be puzzled to learn then that Internal Affairs minister Peter Dunne cancelled just two passports so far this year.

Key wasn't "lying" in the strict sense of the word when he revealed to reporters on Wednesday that nine passports were revoked. (Back in February he told a press conference that the documents of fewer than ten people have been cancelled since authorities were granted the power back in 2005.) But he deliberately implied they were wannabe Kiwi jihadis.

Key could have argued the intelligence community believes a number of people want leave New Zealand to fight in the Middle East.

So far, the Government has cancelled only two passports and would like to make a reasoned case for greater powers to confiscate more. 

But Key didn't say that. Instead, he inflated the risk because that fits with the big, scary Muslim threat that he's been pedalling of late.

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The media happily followed Key's trail of breadcrumbs to Wednesday's announcement. Clumsy (unsubstantiated) hints about beheadings, home-grown terrorism, and the lone-wolf attack on Canada's parliament made for easy, dramatic headlines.

Kiwi converts were tracked down and quoted voicing support for Islamic State (IS) - although you've got to question the nous of a "terrorist" who gives interviews to the local paper.

Ahead of the speech, exclusive access to top spies was granted to newspapers and television crews. Sold as being transparent, it was a PR snow job to tie New Zealand to the conflict raging across Syria and Iraq. 

The threat  level was publicly raised, for added theatre. And just in case the public didn't quite get it, Key threw up a hint about terror threats to next year's cricket world cup. Forget civil liberties, no-one's going to hold sporting events to ransom! 

Domestic action to curb terror tourism and enhance unwarranted surveillance was cynically conflated with New Zealand's participation in the international effort to stop IS. 

Parliament's toothless Intelligence and Security committee has not met in months. The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand says there was no consultation with the local Muslim community, who are already reporting a backlash.

Key's assertions on foreign fighters are difficult to challenge, because he holds all the cards when it comes to intelligence. The directors of both the SIS and the GCSB are his hand-picked, political appointments. The public, media and rival politicians see only the information he chooses to reveal. 

And anyone who dares to contradict him is branded naive, despite his unwillingness to engage in debate on security matters. 

Post Snowden, the global intelligence community has used the rise of IS to challenge the idea that spy networks are abusing their powers, unchecked.

Scaremongering, twisting the facts, and ramming reforms through under urgency, is just a convenient way to bypass much-needed scrutiny of state surveillance.

The Dominion Post