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Issue #1648      July 23, 2014

Spy agency power grab

The Abbott government has introduced legislation into the federal parliament that gives police, Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and other spy agencies even more intrusive powers over the Australian people. A second tranche of sweeping changes will be presented later in the year. Labor is saying that it doesn’t want to give the government and spooking bodies a “blank cheque” but is clearly lending support to the ongoing power grab. With the corporate media breathlessly reporting major news from the US geopolitical viewpoint and creating a climate of fear and hate, it will be a tough fight to prevent the further erosion of Australians’ increasingly limited democratic rights.

Conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the ground work for which Australian governments helped to lay, are being used to justify greater spy powers. It is claimed around 60 Australian citizens are currently in the Middle East assisting the forces such as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL). A further 150 living in Australia are said to support such extremist groups.

To thwart such limited numbers of people, the whole Australian population will be instructed to hand to government agencies even more access to their most private communications and to use them unknowingly in operations against suspected criminal targets. “In the current operating environment, there is a need to know what Australians are up to, particularly if they are going to come home and commit terrorist acts,” ASIO director-general David Irvine said. Australians will also lose protections before the courts.

Legislation introduced by federal Attorney General George Brandis last week will give police and spy agencies access with a single warrant to whole networks of computers, not just individual computers as is the case at the moment. It will allow them to hijack the computer of an innocent third party to hack the computer of a criminal suspect. No permission of the non-suspect would be required. Reports of returning jihadists are setting the tone for the one-sided “debate” but China is said to be the major target for this type of underhand operation.

Police role

The legislative move is being made at the same time Fairfax Media is lifting the lid on wholesale intelligence gathering by Australian police forces. It has been confirmed that police forces have obtained “tower dumps” of metadata from mobile telephone service providers. While Optus has remained tight-lipped, Vodafone and Telstra admit handing over details of the time, duration and destination of calls from mobile phone towers without a warrant. Police forces would not comment.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam and others have called on the government and police forces to outline what sorts of crimes are being investigated with this type of “haystack” collection practice. What happens to the data collected that is not of relevance is not clear. Neither is the question as to whether these “tower dumps” are additional to orders for metadata made by law-enforcement agencies. Last year around 330,000 such demands for information were made, according the government reports.

Legal rights on the line

The heavy duty items requested by the spy agencies should land in parliament around October following a report from the Senate inquiry into the Telecommunications Interception and Access Act. It is said to be considering a recommendation that would oblige internet service providers to retain all their customers’ communications – emails, Skype calls, etc – for two years. The UK has passed similar legislation with a one year retention requirement. Phone companies may be compelled to keep the content of all conversations and SMS (text) messages.

The Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation will get the power to use satellites to gather information on citizens with ministerial authorisation – from ministers like Brandis. Communications between ASIO and its overseas spying counterpart, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), will be improved. Also under consideration is a recommendation to lower the standards for evidence. It is claimed that it is hard to provide evidence gathered overseas or provided by foreign intelligence services to the standard currently required in Australian courts.

Hearsay may be allowed in certain circumstances and the onus of proof will be on the accused for being in a “suspected zone”, i.e. they will have to prove they were involved in humanitarian relief work rather than terrorist activities, for example. This would be an inversion of accepted legal practice in Australia and the loss of a major legal right for Australians.

The real agenda

The language Brandis uses to justify this power grab is lurid. The image of a caliphate in the Middle East exporting terror is being held out. “The actors in these events have ambitions so vast that they regard their enemy the world that we know as the product of the Enlightenment. The values of the liberal democratic states are their target and they are a motivated and lethal enemy,” he said last week. In order to protect ourselves, the Attorney General insists we need to jettison virtually all claims to privacy of our communications and more.

The demand is outrageous and unnecessary. Terrorism is a reality (and much of it has imperialism’s fingerprints all over it) and has to be dealt with but the argument for increased surveillance powers for the police, ASIO and other spy agencies has not been made out. As with the state and federal legislation supposedly dealing with the threat of illegal motorcycle clubs, the objective is to get a store of legislation to deal with discontent and protest as the global capitalist economic crisis deepens.

The case of alleged war criminal and terrorist Khaled Sharrouf is instructive. He is said to have left the country in Houdini-like circumstances last December to go to Syria to join ISIL. Sharrouf was jailed for conspiring to commit terrorists attacks in Australia (plans for which were uncovered during Operation Pendennis). It turns out he used his brother’s passport to walk through Sydney airport and catch a flight to Malaysia and beyond. This bungle is being used as part of a campaign to tighten surveillance of every single person living in Australia. The dishonesty of the scare campaign must be exposed and the push for more police state powers must be defeated.

Next article – Editorial – The wrong side of history

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