I could go to jail for this next month
By Bill Rowlings, CEO of Civil Liberties Australia
New ASIO spy laws are not designed to combat jihadists: they are so ASIO and its “affiliates”can legally tap the mobile phones and laptops of presidents and prime ministers attending the G20 in Brisbane in November.
The laws are slated to be rushed through parliament in this current session. They declare a lot of what’s now illegal, legal. They will allow carte blanche for the domestic spooks, ASIO, the overseas spy agency ASIS and their special spy friends –called affiliates –to operate virtually without restraint at the G20.
Should Australia monitor the G20’s phone and data traffic? What are the ethics and morality of doing so? It’s a debate we should have but from next month, you won’t be allowed to air the issue, because any “special”ASIO operation may not be discussed.
Family photos of beheadings taken by an Australian nutter on a personal jihad were manna from heaven for Australia’s intelligence, security and national police agencies. The photos surfaced just as the secret agencies started to promote the new laws which otherwise were going to be a very hard sell.
Suddenly the spy elite was able to go public with a seemingly valid reason for the privacy-shattering legislation they were planning to sheep-dog through parliament anyway. The dramatic photos lifted the ASIO case to the front pages and the lead TV news items. Once again, the secret agencies were ramping up fear in the Australian community, when the official measure for the chance of a terrorist event here remains exactly the same as it was 13 years ago, before the 9/11 aircraft attacks on America. It has never varied.
The reality is that the effort going into preparing for the G20 was, and maybe still is, far greater than the attention being paid to jihadists. Thousands of security operatives and state and national police are banned from taking leave; parts of inner-city Brisbane will be locked down on a war footing: snipers will occupy rooftops; big armoured vehicles will patrol empty streets; helicopters will wump-wump overhead all day.
Brisbane’s Courier Mail has reported that tens of thousands of residents could be coralled inside their homes or barricaded out of their properties during the event. “The unprecedented security arrangements will keep road closures secret and effectively trap people from moving around the city. Residents will learn of closures only a short time before and will not be allowed to leave or enter their properties inside the ‘declared area’except in an emergency,”the paper said.
The G20 looms so large in the Australian spy agencies’thinking that the Leader of the Opposition has been given a secret briefing on the laws and what is afoot. There’s even a new $457m telecoms network being built which could make it easier for our spies, and their “affiliates”, to snoop on the rest of the world’s leaders.
For writing the above, about the G20, I could go to jail next month when the new laws are expected to come into effect. If the G20 is declared a “Special Intelligence Operation”by ASIO, it becomes an offence punishable by 5-10 years jail to disclose anything Australia’s spooks are doing.
Will ASIO be mounting a special operation at the G20? They would probably be derelict in their duty if they didn’t. From next month, you won’t be able to say so, or comment.
The draft legislation is so wide and ill-defined –as with the term “metadata”–that it would easily send me to jail for being able to analyse what lies behind spook-speak and decipher the real reason that parliament must quickly rubber stamp the spy groups’draconian invasions of everyone’s privacy.
Even without receiving a leak, I would have broken the spy agencies’soon-to-be enforceable omerta code. A parliament which managed to excise islands from Australia’s immigration zone – and then to excise the mainland itself –is now planning to lower a cone of silence over the continent.
The new laws aim to shut down completely public discussion of what the Australian security services are doing, or might be up to. They target journalists getting tip-offs from whistleblowers in the security community, like the operative who revealed Australia had spied on the East Timor Cabinet room over oil-gas boundary discussions in the Timor Sea. In that case, the secret tapped intelligence was allegedly shared with a private company involved in trade negotiations with East Timor, the ABC has reported.
Dubiously gained intelligence
The proposed spy laws will make it overtly legal for ASIO to share such dubiously gained intelligence with private companies. It is easy to imagine that a group of “special corporate friends”of the spy agencies will emerge, in secret. We will never know if such select companies are making “special”donations to a particular party at election time.
The draft laws are an indictment on the parliament, because they are a product of the Attorney-General’s Department, primed by the spy agencies, under both Liberal and Labor governments over the past four years. The draft laws are wrong because they invade personal privacy, give far too much power to secret elites without proper accountability, and diminish the traditional rule of law in Australia.
They are the type of legislation that statesmen politicians would protect citizens from. But statesmen (and women) MPs are in short supply in Canberra.
Imagine how much easier it is to quietly and in the background“soft-sell”the proposition that the new laws target Muslims bent on jihad: there’s race and religion nicely packaged together, wrapped in a red flag. Without the ramped-up jihadist threat, the spy agencies would have to justify wanting access to every word spoken, every email written, as well as every internet site visited by 23 million Australians, constantly. It’s much easier to use the actions of a few ratbags to produce such seemingly precise numbers as 50 Australian jihadists and another possible 150, returning from the Middle East, bent on terror here.
National Public Radio (NPR) of the US reported on Friday (22 Aug) that “experts estimate only 100 or so Americans have gone over”(to Iraq and Syria). It’s hard to believe ASIO’s glib figures are accurate when it claims there are twice as many Australian jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq as experts says there are American, when the US has about 15 times Australia’s population.
ASIO’s jihadists reasoning doesn’t compute. Their meta-scare campaign is subterfuge –which is the business they are in –for the real campaign of super-snooping on foreign heads of state, with the new laws needed in a rush by November to absolve them of legal blame.
The proposed laws, being examined by a parliamentary committee this past week, include an extraordinary provision that allows ASIO to bring in “affiliates”who basically absorb all ASIO’s brand-new powers and immunities on being officially designated, which can happen at the stroke of a hidden pen. Affiliates are very loosely defined in the legislation: they could be any person or group from anywhere:
ASIO affiliate means a person performing functions or services for the Organisation in accordance with a contract, agreement or other arrangement…
“Affiliates”could easily mean the arrival in Brisbane in November of a nest of spies from the US CIA and National Security Agency (NSA), Britain’s GCHQ and the similar agencies in Canada and New Zealand, the other partners with Australia in the “Five Eyes”secret surveillance society.
GCHQ has form with the G20: the UK agency has admitted it engaged in phone tapping and data collection from foreign attendees at the 2009 G20 summit in London.
Committee proposes censorship
The parliamentary committee is so out of touch with reality that it is floating a scheme for journalists to submit stories to a “prescribed authority”to have them vetted before publishing something that might reveal an ASIO special operation. The intent of such a scheme was to “prevent inappropriate conduct”in advance by the media, Senator David Fawcett (Lib, SA) said at hearings in Canberra on Monday.
Who decides what is “appropriate”? Under the parliamentary committee’s proposal, an appointed government official would be the decision-maker. Does that sound as much like censorship to you as it does to me?
Can you imagine the scenario: I write the first half dozen sentences of this story, then consult the “prescribed authority”. Immediately, I’m ordered not to publish. I’m subjected to ASIO and AFP raids, taps are instantly put on my phones and computers, and I’m followed from pillar to post office. Anyone I talk to in person, by phone or computer becomes a leak suspect.
And no story gets out.
ENDNOTE and disclosure: I don’t know for sure that the main reason for the new laws is the G20. But it is a reasonable “intelligence” estimate, based on reading the 124 pages of the draft legislation and the 167 pages of the explanatory document which accompanies it, being aware of what’s said at parliamentary committee hearings, and reading and listening to the public commentary in and on the media on the laws, and on the G20. Will ASIO similarly disclose for public debate what is the foundation for their “intelligence” estimate of 200 possible returning jihadists potentially threatening Australia, and explain the different US estimate and the vastly different danger assessment of returning jihadists?
Bill Rowlings is CEO of Civil Liberties Australia. He appeared at hearings in Canberra on 18 August before the Intelligence and Security committee of parliament on the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014: A Bill for an Act to amend the law relating to national security and intelligence services, and for related purposes
A shortened version of this article appeared in The Guardian Australian edition on 26 Aug 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/26/will-asio-spy-on-world-leaders-at-the-g20-soon-you-wont-be-allowed-to-ask?
NPR also said: “Research suggests that most European fighters who go to join wars in Iraq and Syria do not leave with the intention of returning to Europe to commit violent acts. The majority of them go expecting to either build an Islamic state there, or die on the battlefield.”