The Guardian December 12, 2001

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

In any case, none of the above is necessary, as existing laws already 
provide heavy penalties for anyone committing violent acts against the 

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

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