B S Raghavan

People's stake in security policy

B. S. Raghavan | Updated on April 05, 2011

If there is one common thread running through all the published writings on national security policies, it is about the people being kept at arm's length by governments even in countries such as France, the UK and the US with centuries' old democratic traditions. The consultation with the people, the civil society organisations, and the academics as part of the process of formulating national security strategies is almost non-existent.

Even as late as in October 2010, the British Government came in for harsh criticism at the hands of House of Commons Defence Committee for the annual Strategic Defence and Security Reviews being undertaken “with too little consultation with the public at large and the defence industry”. This, the Committee said, resulted in reduced support for the official policies and actions relating to national security priorities such as counter-terrorism, cyber security, international military crises and national disasters.

Disconnect with public

Lack of general consultation with the public, the “unwillingness” of the Government to look outside the existing structures and the failure to communicate effectively and at frequent intervals the results achieved by its security policies create “a sense of disconnection between the decisions of Government and the understanding of the people at large on defence issues”.

In the US, the Congressional oversight mechanisms, through their inquiries into the working of Government agencies in security and intelligence-related matters, bring about a certain degree of public awareness no doubt, but even there the Government has not often been found measuring up to expected standards of accountability and transparency. In fact, it has been caught holding back information and even misleading the Congress and the people (as, for instance, on the al Qaeda links of Saddam Hussein and his possession of weapons of mass destruction as excuses for invading Iraq).

Apart from the reluctance of governments to regard the people as having a legitimate stake in Defence and security policies, wider public participation is also made difficult by the opaque language employed in most official documents. Here is a complaint from a recent write-up: “Most security policies (and supporting documents) are written in ancient arcane runes that few people can decipher… In a society that increasingly gets its news from “The Daily Show”, reads blogs instead of books, and has everything made simpler every day, why (do) security policies read like the cliff notes for ‘War and Peace'?”

Terrible mess

The media, too, finds it difficult to discharge its fundamental obligation of purveying news and facts in this field because, as participants in a seminar put it, “They are being asked to report threats to national security by government officials who ‘can't reveal things, may act in puzzling ways or may be dishonest.' While both the media and the governments play vital roles in the management of national security in a democracy… the media will always be at a disadvantage because its various outlets do not and cannot know as much as the government.”

The dangers of the absence of an informed debate on security issues and the rights and wrongs of handling them by the Government must be obvious. A strong and enlightened base of citizen awareness is imperative to guard against the Government landing the country in a terrible mess (as the US did in Vietnam, Iraq and now probably Libya or Pakistan, in Kargil). Forging a national consensus on vital and sensitive issues of national security also ensures people's participation in monitoring the extent of fulfilment of its aims and objectives.

For this to happen, the Government will have to be forthcoming, shedding its innate secretiveness, and welcoming discussions in Parliament and among different sections of the people outside. Parliament and the civil society too should demand such an open culture, without being content to accept official handouts in the spirit that “the Government knows best”.

(This brings to a close my series of ten columns on a national security doctrine of India.)

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Published on April 04, 2011
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