Editorial | PET’s toughest adversary: secrecy

Credibility, not secrecy, is the true measure of an intelligence agencyÂ’s success. And right now, PET is suffering a credibility problem.

With three stories involving PET in the press this week, discussions about the agency have suddenly turned towards what it knows about people living here and away from whether it can sniff out terrorists, catch gangsters and generally keep people safe.

ThatÂ’s a shame, because thereÂ’s every reason to believe that PET in recent years has been able to do all of the above.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that PET collects information about bad guys. Knowing who’s up to what is an important tool for the police when clearing up crimes – or, preferably, for preventing them from occurring in the first place.

But, what should be worrying to most is that PET doesn’t feel the need to share information with the people it’s been spying on. That’s especially troublesome when the information is used as the basis for passing judgement about someone – be it for a seat in the cabinet or citizenship.

The problem in these cases is that PET gathers information – not evidence – about suspect individuals. Unlike the police or the courts, PET’s job is to sort through information to find out what’s true, what’s false and what it all adds up to.

ItÂ’s understandable that PET wants to keep its secrets and, more importantly, its sources under wraps. But people should have the right to know what PETÂ’s sources are saying about them if that information is used as the basis for decisions about their lives.

The answer clearly lies in adequately supervising PETÂ’s operations. But thatÂ’s apparently easier said than done. On paper, PET is held in check by five bodies, and two are established with the sole purpose of ensuring that the agency isnÂ’t abusing its authority. Yet none of these prevented it from engaging in the unlawful collection of information for a 20-year period ending in 1985.

More supervision, however, isnÂ’t the same as forcing PET to open its entire archive. There is good reason for keeping some of PETÂ’s operations secret and for protecting the reputation of others who wind up in a PET file through no fault of their own. Proper supervision can help PET find the right balance.

Maintaining the secrecy that intelligence operations require – and enough transparency to keep the public reassured – is a tough challenge. But with PET receiving more resources and broader powers at the same time as people have become less sceptical of its doings, solving that riddle has become more important than ever.

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