Australia’s front-line anti-terrorism agency, the Australian Federal Police, has been gagged by the government from commenting on the link between Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s decision to return to war in Iraq and the increased terrorism threat.

The AFP has declined to answer questions about its assessment of whether the government’s intervention in Iraq has increased the risk of terrorism in Australia, saying they needed to be referred to the Attorney-General’s Department for a “whole of government” response.  The phrase “whole of government” is normally used only in relation to issues that cross a large number of separate portfolios, such as indigenous affairs, and usually requires co-ordination by Prime Minister and Cabinet. But as of deadline, AGD had refused to provide the “whole of government” response.

Government ministers have been adamant that there is no link between the heightened terror threat level and the government’s decision (backed by Labor) to join the United States as, so far, the only nation to commit military forces to a new round of attacks in Iraq, against the terrorist group Islamic State (also called ISIL or ISIS). At a media conference on Friday, despite NSW Police allegations that a conspiracy to murder a random target resulted from a telephone call last Tuesday, the Prime Minister resorted to Bush-era rhetoric to dismiss any connection:

“I should remind everyone that Australians were the subject of a terror attack in Bali long before we got involved in the 2003 Iraq War. The United States was subject to the September 11 atrocity long before any American involvement in Iraq. So, we are a target, not because of anything that we’ve done but because of who we are and how we live. These extremists — who, in my view have nothing to do with Islam, whatever they might claim — these extremists hate us because they don’t like our way of life, they don’t like our freedom, they don’t like our pluralism, they don’t like the acceptance that we extend to minorities, they don’t like the freedom that we give to women.”

Abbott’s insistence there is no link also appeared to be contradicted by a media report in which NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said about the connection between Iraq and the increased risk of terrorism, “in our risk assessments, in putting together our response plan, we have certainly factored that in”.

However, NSW Police subsequently declined to offer a formal response on the subject, saying it was “a decision of federal authorities, not one we would comment on”. Victorian Police also declined to comment on the link. The situation is somewhat different in Queensland, where police have been on a heightened state of alert for months because of the G20 in November and associated high-profile events like the weekend meeting of finance ministers and central bankers hosted by Treasurer Joe Hockey.

The gagging of the AFP appears designed to prevent a repeat of the embarrassment suffered by the Howard government in 2004 when then-commissioner Mick Keelty admitted that Australia’s participation in the 2003 attack on Iraq had increased the risk of terrorism to Australians. Keelty was savaged by senior government figures and even then-Australian Defence Force chief Peter Cosgrove, and forced to back away from his remarks, but was subsequently vindicated as senior intelligence officials in the UK and the US acknowledged that the war on Iraq had made Western citizens less safe.