Dangerous new powers "to counter terrorism"
by Joan Coxsedge The framework of our secret intelligence network was put into place during the Cold War era but today I will concentrate on the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation, our internal snooping outfit. ASIO was established by administrative direction in 1949 when the US complained that Canberra was leaking like a sieve and refused to send us any more "stuff" unless we had such an agency. ASIO's first head was a South Australian judge, but he was quickly replaced by Brigadier Spry, one of a self- appointed clique of army, navy and air intelligence officers, given unlimited opportunities to interfere with the political life of this country. In 1956, the ASIO Act was formalised, setting out its functions in three vague paragraphs. Over the years. British influence waned as US influence in our region increased and Washington took us over, lock, stock and barrel. Anyone doubting our subservience to the USA should heed words of former ASIO chief, Harvey Barnett, who said that those who opposed the role of the CIA in Australia are traitors. When Whitlam was elected in 1972, calls for reform of our spy agencies came from inside the Labor Party, especially from the Victorian branch where I succeeded in getting policy to disband ASIO and the rest to be put under the hammer. But instead of facing the issue, it was deliberately side-tracked with the appointment of Justice Hope as Royal Commissioner into Security and Intelligence, who along the way became one of the boys. His published reports, published in 1977, ran into five volumes but were more notable for their padding than for any useful information. These were followed by the White Report in January 1978, with a devastating criticism of South Australia's Special Branch — and by definition, ASIO, its master — and the NSW Privacy Committee, triggering even louder calls for reform and disbandment of our secret agencies. All of this was going on at the same time as the Fraser Government was pushing legislation to give ASIO vastly increased powers, dishing out drastic penalties for people exposing ASIO's activities and giving legal sanctions to ASIO's previously illegal phone-taps, mail-opening, break-ins and buggings, defining it more clearly as a secret political police force. The climate was clearly heading in the wrong direction, when along came the Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting in Sydney and an explosion in a rubbish bin outside the Hilton Hotel — where CHOGM delegates were staying — in the early hours of 13 February 1978. The bin contained sticks of gelignite which were crushed in a council garbage truck compactor, killing two council garbage men and injuring a policeman, who later died. Despite no-one claiming responsibility, it was immediately trumpeted as a "terrorist attack" from our near-hysterical media, and led to a travesty of justice when three young men were framed. After two rigged trials, they were jailed for 16 years, serving seven before being pardoned and compensated. The only ones who stood to gain (and who could get within a bull's roar of the Hilton) were the secret agencies themselves. I raise it because it showed how far our secret agencies were prepared to go. During the Hilton "crisis", the Labor Opposition was mute, terrified it would be branded as "terrorist" and allowed the legislation to go through unchallenged. The Hilton "bombing" was also used to justify the militarisation of police forces around Australia, with the establishment of special para-military "anti-terrorist" groups within their ranks. (Recently, there was a report that Victoria's plods are currently playing around with new stun guns and new capsicum spray, all in the name of law and order, of course.) Over the years, ASIO got a raft of extra powers, most notably in 1999, when the Olympic Games was the excuse to allow ASIO to interfere with people's computers, by "adding, deleting, or altering data", the right to enter premises to "retrieve" surveillance (with no mention of its installation), allowing the Director-General to "broaden the range of warrants in an emergency" and tell his ministers after the event (so much for ministerial control). A chilling sentence in Attorney-General Williams' Second Reading speech allows ASIO "to do certain things which may be necessary", without telling us what. A push that appeared to come from the United States, which passed similar legislation. Earlier this year, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and our Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) had their turn. Downer gave ASIS incompetents open slather to penetrate overseas drug rings and authorised large-scale electronic eavesdropping. Information garnered can be passed to other countries, which could well be engaged in commercial espionage against Australian firms, or be handed to a foreign government opposed to Australians active in human rights or the environment. "Swap" arrangements inevitably leading to a loss of control. ASIS can also ask foreign agencies from other countries to do their dirty work. And here we are today, post-September 11, in an even more crapped-up political climate, with the capitalist system going down the shute and the US of A off the leash, using its "war against terrorism" to drop bombs on an impoverished people, get its hands on a trillion dollars worth of oil, and while they're at it, settle some old scores against nations not completely up its arse. On September 14, George W proclaimed a "national emergency" and gave the government agencies unprecedented new powers in the revealingly-named " Patriotic Act", unravelling long-held freedoms and civil liberties, with the FBI now canvassing the possibility of using torture, citing Israel as a model. The new US laws are not limited to terrorist offences. One section places computer hackers in the same category and permits officials to carry out unlimited eavesdropping without court authority against anyone deemed to be a "computer trespasser" One of the Act's worst features is its new definition of "domestic terrorism", which includes any dangerous and unlawful activity that is intended "to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion", which could bring any activist into its net. There are also new powers for telephone tapping, Internet bugging and secret searches of premises, even where terrorism is not involved. The few US legislators urging caution have been left like shags on a rock, completely isolated, like the handful of journalists declining to toe the White House line. US authorities are toying with "truth" drugs, pressure tactics and extraditing suspects to other countries whose security services are more used to employing a heavy-handed approach during interrogations, because under US law, evidence extracted using physical pressure or torture is inadmissible in court and interrogators could face criminal charges. On November 13, George W took care of that when he established special military tribunals to try non-citizens (including lawful permanent residents) charged with terrorism, a measure not seen since WW2. Normal checks and balances have been thrown out the window to be replaced by secret trials without a jury or choice of lawyer and without the requirement of a unanimous verdict, severely limiting a defendant's opportunity to challenge evidence, even though he/she could be facing the death sentence. All of it is designed to get a conviction. Australia — large country, shrivelled soul — traditionally follows suit, regardless of relevance or impact on our citizenry. The same for Canada and Britain. The four countries — US, Britain, Canada and Australia — are signatories to the super secret Quadripartite Pact, and with the addition of New Zealand, to Echelon, a sophisticated upgrade of the UKUSA Treaty or SIGINT Pact — a system that allows spy agencies to monitor most of the world's private and commercial communications — both agreements signed in 1947. I mention these other countries and our secret treaties because we appear to be running in tandem regarding the timing, composition and savagery of the proposed new laws, suggesting a great deal of collusion. The Blair Government has also declared a "state of public emergency" and suspected foreign terrorists will now face indefinite internment or being bunged off to a third country based on "substantial evidence" from the security services with decisions being made without trial in a special immigration court. In Britain, suspects will be held for six months in a high security jail after which their case will be reviewed by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission headed by a High Court judge. Further reviews will be held every six months. Under the proposals, suspects will be legally represented but will be barred from seeking judicial review and will be allowed to appeal only on a point of law. Other measures include extending the law on incitement to cover religious hatred with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. UK Home Secretary Blunkett is violating Articles 5 and 15 of the European Convention but dismisses critics as "airy-fairy civil libertarians", while MI5 snoopers told a secret Select Committee meeting of British MPs that the tough new measures weren't sufficiently tough and they needed a new law concerning conspiracy to commit a terrorist offence to plug loopholes. The meeting was so secret that one member who missed it, didn't even know it had happened. In Canada, the same dismal story. A rush-through of draconian measures for "preventative detention" of potential terrorists for up to 12 months without a trial or conviction in which individuals are stripped of their right to silence and forced to inform on their friends, relatives or co- workers with the threat of their own incarceration; secret trials; shedding of all privacy laws; and a sweeping definition of "terrorism" covering virtually all forms of militant struggle. We face a similar situation here. The following package of recommendations has already been passed by the Howard Cabinet "to deal with international terrorism" and given the nod by Labor's Laurie Brereton (at the time Shadow Foreign Minister) and is just waiting to be introduced into the Federal Parliament. In his October news release, Attorney-General Daryl Williams said that the legislation would authorise State or Federal Police, acting in conjunction with ASIO, to arrest a person and bring that person before a prescribed authority, to "protect the public from politically motivated violence". In other words, ASIO will get the power of arrest — which it has never had before. It will be able to detain people for questioning for up to 48 hours. And although it will have to go through the formality of obtaining a warrant from a federal magistrate, it is an enormous shift in its operations. Brought before a prescribed authority, we will not have the right to silence. If we refuse to answer questions, we can be jailed for up to five years. There will be a special new offence of terrorism — based on the UK Terrorism Act 2000 — to include violent attacks or threats of violent attacks "intended to advance a political, religious or ideological cause which are directed against or endanger Commonwealth interests", with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. This could put all of us in the slammer. ASIO, in the presence of a prescribed authority, will be able to question people who are not themselves suspected of terrorist activity, but who "may have information that may be relevant to ASIO's investigations into politically motivated violence" giving ASIO clowns virtual open slather against probably terrified vulnerable people. The government will be able to seize and freeze terrorist assets, using new terrorist specific measures in the Crimes Act. Naturally, there are no details as to what constitutes a "terrorist", never mind "terrorist assets". In any case, none of the above is necessary, as existing laws already provide heavy penalties for anyone committing violent acts against the state. I conclude with a disturbing report in the Financial Review on a speech given by Major-General Cosgrove to the Australian Army's annual Land Warfare conference in Sydney last Monday. It was extraordinary convoluted — it could have been written by someone else — but the message wasn't, which was to politicise our army so it would be prepared to take part in operations against civilian dissidents or militant trade unionists in an industrial situation. Among other things, the general warned that the attacks against the US had "blurred the hitherto quite distinct boundaries of the functions and responsibilities of the security, law and order and administrative arms of government we must have the ability to make each constable or soldier a sort of Karnak the all-knowing", he concluded. So here we are, with Howard back and prospects of an even more buggered economy and a new wave of McCarthyism. If these proposals become law, then anyone criticising their boss, the government or our lousy social system, could be targeted. Our most basic freedoms, the freedom to speak out, the freedom of association and freedom of movement — are being threatened as never before. These are fascist laws for fascist times. We must oppose them with every ounce of our energy in every way we can. Make your views known to the Prime Minister and Attorney-General — especially to your local member of parliament — and write to all opposition members in the Senate, where they could combine forces to defeat the legislation.
* * *The above article is the speech given by Joan Coxsedge, political activist and former Victorian MLC, at a Human rights forum in Melbourne on November 17, 2001