The first rule of journalism is that you can’t accept the word of a public official unless there is evidence to back it up. However, this principle goes out the window when there are allegations of a terrorist threat, as we’ve seen this past week.
An article in the NZ Herald (4 November) claimed that “concrete evidence has emerged that there has been an attempt to carry out a terrorist attack on New Zealand soil.” TV3’s Newshub was of the view that “a planned terrorist attack on New Zealand soil has been foiled by our spy agency.”
What was the evidence for this “planned terrorist attack”? It was a mere six words in a National Security System (NSS) Handbook, indicating that one of the topics discussed by security officials was a “threat of a domestic terrorist incident.” Nothing more.
We have no information as to whether this was a real threat, an overblown threat, a false alarm, or somebody being defined as a threat when they really weren’t, like Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui was in the early 2000s.
Spy bosses and media bosses both have an interest in exaggerating the “terrorist threat” to New Zealand. The extra resources the spy agencies have been granted since 2001 were to deal with a terrorist threat which barely exists. SIS and GCSB jobs could be at risk if New Zealanders come to realise this. For the media “terrorist threat” headlines boost audience numbers and advertising revenue.
To beef out their “terrorist threat” stories our media often go to security commentators like Paul Buchanan to promote various scenarios, even if there are no actual facts to back up these scenarios. These commentators generally give more credibility to the utterances of spy agencies than they deserve.
For example, Paul Buchanan rightly noted on Radio NZ that no one had been arrested or charged in relation to the alleged “threat of a domestic terrorist incident”. But he didn’t draw the most obvious conclusion, that maybe it wasn’t a real threat, or was overblown. Instead he took it as real and hypothesized the perhaps it was “thwarted so early that the authorities were not able to gather evidence that they could present to the court, and if that is the case, where are the suspects now?”
We should always remember that when the spy agencies have talked about specific cases – such as Ahmed Zaoui or “jihadi brides” supposedly leaving New Zealand – they’ve generally had it wrong.
[The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security’s annual report refers to one case of warrantless surveillance ordered under a “terrorism” clause in the SIS Act. A warrant was later granted for this particular surveillance. It is unclear whether that SIS investigation uncovered any serious problem, or whether it had any relation to the alleged “threat of a domestic terrorist incident” referred to NSS Handbook, as discussed above. As usual, we are kept in the dark.]