US President Barack Obama vows to target ISIL.
US President Barack Obama vows to target ISIL. Photo: AFP

We, the general public, don't know what secrets the security
agencies have locked in their vaults, the threats they have identified
or the plotters they might be monitoring.

But we know one thing. This system of grading the terrorist threat is a cheap gimmick, plain and simple.

The public is no better informed or protected by raising the
arbitrary "National Terrorism Public Alert System" from a rating of
medium to high.

The only consequence will be an initial burst of panic and unfair suspicion.

Then, when nothing happens, or is seen to have happened, complacency will set in.

Don't believe this change is about ensuring extra vigilance, because that's just bureaucratic bum quilting.

Terrorism, as ASIO chief David Irvine says himself, is a
persistent threat and security agencies should always be on the alert.
That's their job, after all.

And as far the public dobbing in suspicious activity, that should be encouraged but it doesn't require a pseudo-science ranking.

The problem is trust and what information security agencies are willing to share.

A system of this type – with its four levels of low to
extreme – is meant to evoke the bushfire danger rating as a way of
conveying a warning to the public.

But the comparison is entirely wrong. The weather is no
secret, and neither are the forecasts. The public can readily see why a
rating is made and so trust the judgment of authorities.

When the weather changes, the rating comes down, and buckets of water and wet towels are packed away. Simple.

But this terrorism alert doesn't work that way. The
intelligence assessments are secret. The surveillance is covert. The
public doesn't see the dark corners or know what suspicions are held.

And the rating is nowhere near as flexible. Since 2003, when
the present system was introduced, it has stuck on medium, meaning an
attack "could occur".

Going to high supposedly means an attack "is likely". But is
that really different? Irvine claimed this week he saw "an elevated
[threat] level of medium". Does that mean there is also a lower level of

The whole thing becomes absurd when you add in the risk
involved in lowering the rating. The intelligence agencies can never
truly know what they might be missing, so there is little incentive to
drop the threat level.

Which really means, there is no reason to trust the system.

The role of ASIO is to protect Australians and it is clear there is a threat from fighters returning from Syria or Iraq.

But serious responses are needed to tackle serious threats.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, eager to disavow responsibility
for the system to the security agencies, should relieve them of the
burden of ranking the threat and just let them get on with the job of
stopping it.

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