Words Matter: Academia, Terrorism and National Security
Does academic literature have an effect on national security and the lives of individuals? Should academics consider the possible impact that their writings may have if they are writing on matters of terrorism, intelligence or national security?
The answer is yes. Words matter. Recent proceedings in Federal Court have drawn attention to this issue.
Academic literature, especially that from peer reviewed journals or from well known university professors, is assumed to be honest, well researched and reliable. If personal biases or institutional positions are involved, then the lack of impartiality should be readily identifiable at the outset of the article or book. It is also believed that academic articles should contain the relevant information that both supports and takes away from the argument of the academic writing the paper. This must be done in order to provide insight and balance into the arguments at stake. These are important assumptions, because academic work frequently finds itself quoted in fields of inquiry where words matter and have consequences.
An intersection exists between the academic world and the worlds of justice, law and intelligence. It can occur in many different areas such as criminal trials, civil trials in Federal Court, Commissions of Inquiry, government hearings at the House and Senate level, intelligence reports and in the press.
Governments must maintain high standards of information during public proceedings such as criminal and civil trials or in formal hearings. The integrity of the justice system is at stake as well as the general credibility of the government. Frequently, governments depend on the written works of academics to provide basic information or to add credibility to their arguments or positions.
This acceptance by the government â and by extension the public â puts a large amount of faith and trust in academia.
The impact of the academic information presented can be significant. In the Federal Court of Canada, where various cases related to terrorism and national security are heard, individuals can be deported or spend years in jail awaiting proceedings. Millions of dollars are spent on court costs. The reputation of the government and its justice and intelligence agencies as credible institutions are continuously under scrutiny. Time and energy may also be spent on cases which have misleading information when this effort could have been spent on other cases where actual threats exist.
The fields of terrorism and national security studies are often viewed with suspicion. Primary source information can be difficult to obtain, secrecy is an obsession in some governments, and ideological factors can cloud judgements. The sudden explosion of interest in terrorism studies after 9/11 has also caused a sudden influx of those studying or examining the issues. As well, terrorism studies have no disciplinary home. Among others, the field of enquiry into terrorism can include politics, history, international relations, military studies, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, economics, anthropology, religion and the hard sciences.
Due to the inherent problems in the field of study, academics need to be especially cautious in this area of study. If anything, academics and journals publishing in the field of terrorism and national security should be subjecting their articles to a more stringent level of review than many other fields.
A series of academic weaknesses, however, have been recently exposed as a result of hearings in the Federal Court of Canada concerning National Security Certificate cases. The examples involved information presented by the Government of Canada which has been derived from peer reviewed journal articles and books by academics. Other concerns have been raised about articles written by academics quoted from âthinks tanksâ which maintain online websites and e-journals.
A pattern appears to be emerging as to the nature of the information provided which is of less-than-academic quality. The emerging patterns are:
1. A disconnect between the statement in the body of the article and the sources in the footnotes which do not back up the statement being made,
2. Strong statements which are made, but which are built on weak foundations or on assumptions which cannot be shown to be valid,
3. Information from two different situations is overlapped or mixed together, leaving the reader with a false impression about the nature of a particular problem or situation,
4. In a limited number of cases, information provided in articles is simply false.
No particular locus for these problems has emerged. The problems can come from lesser known universities or from âIvy Leagueâ institutions. Those involved can be relatively junior or senior and they can be also be âstar academicsâ or relative unknowns. Geography appears to play no role as the examples come from many different regions and countries.
The position of academics in todayâs society may be somewhat diminished, but many are still granted authority and influence in the world of justice, law and intelligence. In order to sustain this position in the face of various pressures, academics must be able to show that they are worthy of the trust placed in them and in their institutions as a whole. Standards, as they say, must be maintained in order to preserve the credibility of the pursuit of knowledge. Unfortunately, individual weaknesses in some publications appear to be compounded by a lack of institutional oversight. While it is not clear that the problems are systemic, more discussion needs to occur on the issues of rigorous methods, honesty and good craft.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.