What now for policing, intelligence and security agencies as the COVID-19 curve flattens?

24 APRIL 2020

What now for policing, intelligence and security agencies as the COVID-19 curve flattens?

A Charles Sturt University intelligence and security academic asks what has been the role of police, security and the intelligence gathering and analysis community during the COVID-19 crisis, and what will be their role in the next phase.

As the Prime Minister and some state Premiers propose to ease some of the more restrictive public health measures in Australia in the weeks ahead, Associate Professor in Intelligence and Security Studies, Patrick F Walsh (pictured), a senior researcher in the Charles Sturt Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security, argues there should now be examination of the types of roles police, intelligence and security agencies have been playing and what needs improving and changing to meet this and other health security threats.

I think most people would agree reflection is essential on whether police and first responders need more training in their pandemic operational responses.

Importantly, this includes whether there could be more common operational understanding of public health orders, and in what types of situations police give warnings versus more enforcement measures, and how that is communicated to the public in the future.

Police and emergency responders are often the first to be given a role in a crisis, but the threat in a pandemic is a biological agent.

In the future I would want to see more focus on pandemic training that brings together policing and health first responders to build even stronger mutual understanding of each other’s roles and what can be learnt from one another.

Police don’t need to be trained to become expert epidemiologists, but they do need to understand bio-threats and how to best work effectively in such fast-moving environments.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘health security’ is a useful over-arching term to capture both biosecurity and public health dimensions of health incidents in order to assess the national security implications of both.

There needs to be a stronger focus now on what role national intelligence agencies played in the current pandemic, and which ones were not able to play a role.

For example, some, such as the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, have been giving operational support to various health agencies, particularly with increasing the rapidity of contact tracing and isolation measures, as well as tracking COVID-19-related crimes, such as welfare fraud.

What capabilities, knowledge, skills, and policy initiatives need to be put into place to better integrate their capabilities with the public health system?

In particular, what about some of the other agencies in the intelligence community, what should be their role?

Australia needs a national health security strategic plan that will provide a strategic approach to pandemics and clearly articulate the role of police and the national intelligence community hereafter.

As well as primary responders, such as the federal and state health departments, the Office of National Intelligence (ONI), which is the peak national intelligence agency responsible for coordinating the capabilities of all the other intelligence agencies, should have a central role.

It should make sure all intelligence agencies have capabilities and expertise that can assist in the future detection, disruption and prevention of health security threats, whether they are natural in origin, such as a pandemic, or intentional, such as bioterrorism.

The ONI should establish a national health security intelligence officer to oversee, direct and coordinate intelligence agency collection and analysis of data as far as health security threats are concerned.

Although a Senate Committee on COVID-19 has been recently established, the Commonwealth should also appoint an independent advisory panel of experts, for the next year to evaluate the initial response period, and make recommendations for immediate action.

It should exist for at least the next 12 months to monitor the issues that will still emerge and their impacts on health, and on social, economic, psychological, security and foreign policy issues.

This panel should have a multi-disciplinary team of public health, health security and other experts to advise its chairperson.

I don’t think we need a Royal Commission, at least not yet, but we need something with broad terms of reference that has independence from government and can report bi-monthly to the government on matters that need addressing.

On Wednesday 8 April 2020, the Senate established a Select Committee on COVID-19 to inquire into the Australian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see ‘Improving ‘Five Eyes’ health security intelligence capabilities: leadership and governance challenges’ by Patrick F Walsh published in the journal Intelligence and National Security (Wednesday 22 April 2020).

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Associate Professor Patrick Walsh, contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or news@csu.edu.au

Professor Walsh is a former intelligence officer and is also Honorary Visiting Fellow, Department of History, Politics and International Relations, at the University of Leicester in the UK. His Twitter handle is @FPawalsh

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