The Guardian October 10, 2001

Enter the new secret police

by Marcus Browning

Under cover of an anti-terrorist offensive, the Howard Government has 
signalled new laws to enhance and reinforce the right of law enforcement 
bodies and spy organisations to trample on the civil liberties and 
democratic rights of the Australian people. The new laws would add to the 
draconian powers given to the military in the lead up to the Sydney 
Olympics last year, and to the powers handed to law enforcement bodies and 
the military this year in the Border Protection Bill.

The defence force's special counter terrorist and incidents response group, 
put in place during the Olympics, has been reinstated and "significantly 
enhanced" (doubled in size).

Actual details, such as the funding, location and nature of this enhanced 
capability, like the rest of the planned changes, have not been made public 
for "security reasons".

The spy organisation ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) 
has been given arrest and detention powers, allowing it to detain suspects 
for 48 hours without charge. The right to remain silent has been waived, 
with suspects facing up to five years jail for refusing to answer questions 
from ASIO officers.

According to Attorney-General Daryl Williams, ASIO will be allowed to 
question people not themselves suspected of terrorist activity, but "who 
may have information that may be relevant to ASIO's investigations into 
politically motivated violence".

The legislation "would also authorise the State or Federal Police, acting 
in conjunction with ASIO, to arrest a person and bring that person before 
the prescribed authority." 

Although ASIO will have to go through the formality of obtaining a warrant 
from a federal magistrate, it has now ceased, even officially, to be solely 
a spy organisation used for collecting information and compiling data, 
albeit mostly on law abiding Australian citizens. For all intents and 
purposes ASIO is now the state secret police with broadly defined powers, 
such as the right to arrest "suspects linked to security incidents".

There is to be a special offence of terrorism, with a maximum penalty of 
life imprisonment. Such an offence will include violent attacks or threats 
of violent attacks.

The Government will have the power to seize and freeze terrorist assets 
using new terrorist-specific measures in the Crimes Act. There is no detail 
as to what can be considered "terrorist assets".

Plain clothed armed security officers will be placed on domestic and 
international flights and there is to be a more intense examination of 
airline baggage, including full x-ray and physical search of cabin luggage.

Repressive measures

It was 12 months ago when, using the Olympics as a pretext, the Government 
began putting wide-ranging measures for repression in place.

The September 11 attacks in the US have added to the momentum of a whole 
agenda that has little to do with terrorism and everything to do with 
clamping down on opposition to government policies at home, and 
coordinating those same repressive measures with the ruling circles in 
other countries.

In Australia this agenda involves the powers given to the military under 
three defence force projects: Bluefin, Bloodhound and Greenfin. Though 
labelled as counter-terrorist measures, they in fact have created military 
special forces with the means of carrying out urban warfare and crowd 
control measures that involve tear gas, stun grenades, short range portable 
missiles, lightweight mortars and rapid response vehicles armed with 
machine guns.

The Defence Legislation Amendment (Aid to the Civil Authorities) Bill 
introduced last year authorises the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister 
and the Attorney General to advise the Governor-General (the Commander-in-
Chief of the armed forces under the Constitution) to call out military 
personnel to deal with "domestic violence".

This is a vague and undefined term from the Constitution which now is 
widely interpreted to mean more than "terrorism" and can include strikes, 
political demonstrations or riots.

The three Ministers can call the military out when they are satisfied that 
domestic violence is occurring "or is likely to occur" that will effect 
"Commonwealth interests" (also undefined). Almost any political 
demonstration can be rendered "unlawful".

Once deployed the military will have wide-ranging powers to seize premises, 
places and means of transport, search premises and detain people. Military 
forces will be permitted to cause death or grievous bodily harm where they 
believe "on reasonable grounds" that such action is necessary to protect 
another person, including military personnel. In essence, they are allowed 
to shoot to kill.


These powers to the military also include the use of electronic ID systems, 
a development that follows an international pattern. Parallel legislation 
under "counter-terrorist" measures has emerged in the US and the European 
Union (EU). Much of the new legislation proposed in the EU and Australia is 
based on the UK Terrorism Act. 

EU proposals for the harmonisation of anti-terrorism legislation, reports 
the Belgian League of Human Rights, contains a broad scope of offenses 
defined as terrorism "that aims to seriously prejudice the political, 
economic and social structures of a country and could cover actions which 
have nothing to do with terrorism".

Many countries, including the US, Britain, the Philippines and the 
Netherlands are taking the opportunity to try and introduce a national ID 
card. In Britain, the Blair Government is pushing for a compulsory ID card 
which would contain a name, date of birth, photograph and possibly finger 
prints, criminal record and DNA.

The Statewatch organisation in Britain warns that the EU response to the 
terrorist attacks in the US, which is similar in scope to the UK Terrorism 
Act, is "drawn so wide as to endanger legitimate dissent".

Also that "there is a deliberate attempt to broaden the concept of 
terrorism to cover protests (such as those against the WEF, IMF and World 
Bank) what it calls `urban violence'.

Back to index page