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Issue #1658      October 1, 2014

ASIO powers

Big Brother gets bigger

ASIO will be able to copy, delete or modify data held on any computer covered by a warrant. It will be able to use innocent third-party computers to gain access to a computer that is part of a network it has a warrant to monitor. In fact, the definition of “network” is so wide open, ASIO could monitor the entire Australian network – a network of networks – with just one warrant. It also allows for ASIO to store the content of communications – going well beyond the storage of metadata by internet providers.

The Senate passed the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No 1) 2014 on Thursday September 25, with the full support of the Labor Party and the Palmer United Party Senators. The Australian Greens were the only parliamentary party to oppose the Bill and defend the democratic rights of the Australian people, including journalists.

The handling of amendments to the Bill was appalling. The Senate was expected to debate them before they had been given a copy, not the first time such a stunt has been pulled by the government. (See Guardian, Editorial, “Government contempt for Parliament”, #1655, 10/09/2014) The Attorney General remained mute when serious and important questions were asked of him, again treating the Senate with utter contempt.

ASIO unaccountable

The Abbott government’s terror legislation builds on the coercive, draconian ASIO and other terror laws passed by the Howard government. The legislation is wide open to abuse with reportage of ASIO or police actions on “security” matters illegal and punishable by 10 years in jail (see “Outrageous attack on press freedom” this issue of the Guardian). This includes anyone taken in for questioning informing anyone (even their partner) they have been detained and questioned for days!

Their detention, the questions, their answers are all top secret security matters, even if the person is not under suspicion, but might know something that might be of use to ASIO.

This applies to journalists, anyone taken in for questioning, even if it is because there is a suspicion that the person might know something or might associate with a suspect, as well as be suspects themselves. Whistle blowers will be jailed.

The legislation extends the sunset clauses in Howard’s laws by another 10 years and further restricts the freedoms and rights of all Australians, while providing ASIO agents using and abusing the legislation with almost complete immunity from criminal or civil liability when they break the law.

The original bill provided immunity for those carrying out torture; this has been amended but the amendment cannot be taken seriously as anyone reporting torture could be jailed for 10 years.

It strengthens ASIO’s powers, boosts its funding and abolishes the National Security Legislation Monitor, the only semblance of accountability or “independent” review of the application of the laws.

Hypocrisy and politics

While the Abbott government was ramming through legislation that could see journalists jailed for 10 years for reporting on “security” matters, PM Tony Abbott was in New York raising the case of jailed Australian journalist Peter Greste with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Greste is serving a seven-year jail sentence for his activities as a journalist.

“Freedom of the press is fundamental to a democracy and we are deeply concerned that this verdict is part of a broader attempt to muzzle the media freedom that upholds democracies around the world,” Abbott said after his meeting with the Egyptian President. Freedom of the press, already severely limited by the high concentration of media ownership in Australia, is in the process of being outlawed by the Abbott government.

Media organisations, the media union, lawyers, academics, and many others have raised serious concerns over the legislation.

The Bill is set to pass through the Lower House this week and become law within days.

It is the first in a series of fascistic legislation from the Abbott government, building bit by bit on Howard’s ASIO and terror bills.

Covert searches

The Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014 was introduced to Parliament last week. This bill expands the definition of terrorist organisations, lowers the threshold for arrest without warrant for “terrorism offences”, and extends existing measures that were due to expire, including control orders, preventative detention orders, police stop, search and seizure powers and ASIO questioning and detention powers.

Currently, if the Australian Federal Police (AFP) wish to search a premise they are required to notify the occupant at the time the warrant is executed and must allow the occupant to observe the search. “Delayed notification search warrants” would allow the AFP to covertly enter and search premises without the knowledge of the occupier of the premises, and then provide notification at a later date.

“By delaying notification of the execution of the warrant, the AFP will have the significant tactical advantage of allowing an investigation to remain confidential,” Attorney General George Brandis said in his Second Reading Speech.

The arrest threshold for so-called foreign incursion and terrorism offences allow the police to arrest individuals on reasonable suspicion, rather than reasonable belief.

Restrictions on travel

There is a new “declared areas” offence for those who, regardless of those warnings, choose to travel to the area without legitimate reason. The onus of proof is reversed, with the individual having to prove they had a legitimate reason to travel to that area.

ASIO can seize foreign passports and request the suspension of Australian passports and cancellation of visas of anyone who might be a threat to security.

“Previously the Act said authorities had to ‘believe’ a terror crime was about to be committed, however the new Foreign Fighters legislation means they only have to ‘suspect’ a crime is to be committed to be able to charge someone,” Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) spokesperson and criminal barrister Greg Barns said.

“If you are arrested for a terrorist offence you will be in jail for a long time, as it is almost impossible to get bail. If you are going to arrest people under these circumstances then you want it to be done on more than a whim or a guess.”

The Foreign Fighters Bill would see people who are suspected of preparing for or participating in a foreign incursion receive punishments ranging from life imprisonment to loss of social security benefits. This is on the basis of suspicion, never mind laying charges, a trial, conviction before being punished. There is not the public scrutiny to limit abuse as under other criminal law.

“However, under this new legislation, an individual could receive a life sentence just for being associated with another person or people planning to fight overseas. They could be handed a life sentence for attending a training session or even for offering a room to be used for a meeting,” Mr Barns said.

“If a young teenager innocently follows his friends or family members to a meeting, they would also be jailed for life, even if they had no knowledge of or intention of participating in proceedings.

“The new laws also give authorities the power to cancel social security entitlements for people suspected of being associated with terrorist activity,” Mr Barns said.

“They don’t have to give a reason for doing so – once again, this penalty is totally disproportionate to the crime. If that social security payment is the main source of income for a family then innocent parents, partners or children could be left destitute.”

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam opposing the Bill said, “Big brother surveillance won’t make Australia safer. These are unprecedented powers that invade the privacy of all Australians for no security benefit.”

There is nothing in the legislation that would prevent ASIO and other agencies using these powers against communists, trade unionists, student groups and others, who might express dissent or question the capitalist system.

Like the so-called “bikie laws”, the terror legislation is wide open to abuse beyond their stated purpose. The meaning of the term “terrorist” has become a piece of elastic, its use being stretched to cover people with “extremist” views who do not support or practice violence.

These powers are being introduced with longer term aims in mind, such as suppressing any dissent to the government’s austerity programs before it can take hold and pose a threat to the ruling class and the capitalist system.

This war, as the previous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are based on lies, with George W Bush’s term “full spectrum dominance” providing a more honest description of the US’s aims – global domination. The spin around terrorism provides a cover for the rest of the agenda, which includes the overthrow of the Syrian government (see “Strikes on Syria are desperation incarnate” in this issue of the Guardian), takeover of Iran, war with Russia, and in the case of China – counter-revolution and breaking it up.

Australia should be using its membership of the UN Security Council (2013-2014) to give leadership and work within the framework of the UN, not fighting the US’s illegal wars in the Middle East.

The lessons are clear, as Scott Ludlam points out, “The terror networks we tried to smash have morphed and grown and spread to the point where we are now in a more precarious state than before.” (See “Toll of war on terror” in this issue of the Guardian) Every extra bomb drives more young people into the arms of the terrorists. Australia should pull out of the US wars and its military alliance with the US, and assert moral leadership.

Economic and social conditions are the other factor providing a breeding ground for extremists, attracting young, unemployed people in particular, disconnected from society and whose futures look bleak.

Next article – Editorial – War without end

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