ASIO set to get enhanced secret police powers
by Bob Briton A decision of the parliamentary Labor Party's shadow cabinet may be all that the Federal Government needs to get its "ASIO Bill" to pass through the Senate next week and into its arsenal of anti-people legislation. Various Labor spokespersons, including Party leader Simon Crean, have declared their general satisfaction with the revised proposal. While the Opposition hasn't seen the "fine print" of the legislation, it is expected that Labor will decide to support the Bill it sought to amend last December. On that occasion, the Government withdrew the Bill claiming the amendments had made it unworkable. Political pressure, rather than any significant changes to the Bill, appear to be behind the present desire to "work with the Government" to give the Commonwealth's domestic spook outfit wider powers than have been sought by either the FBI in the US or by the UK's MI5. With the ALP lagging disastrously in the opinion polls, it looks as though the threat of a double dissolution election fought on "security issues" and the powers of the Senate has been enough to blunt the Parliamentary Party's concerns over civil liberties. The minor parties and independents in the Senate, civil liberties and other community organisations concerned at the granting ASIO powers that would convert it into a fully-fledged secret police will have been sidelined in this process. Democrats spokesperson Brian Greig notes that the proposed "detain and interrogate" powers still apply to those not suspected of any involvement in terrorism. Bob Brown of the Australian Greens has the same objection, among others, and has vowed to oppose the power grab in toto. Attorney General Daryl Williams is making much of the government's "concessions" in the revised Bill. It now has a sunset clause that will allow for a review of the powers given to ASIO after three years — again, more generous than the period given to the FBI or MI5. It will lift the age at which people can be swept of the streets or dragged from their homes from 14 to 16 years — Labor would still prefer that this be raised to 18. It will limit the time a person can be held in detention to a week and reduce the amount of time that person can be interrogated to 24 hours, i.e. three blocks of eight hours. The Bill also does away with the 48-hour period during which a person was to be denied access to a lawyer. However, as the Attorney General points out, any lawyer chosen will have to meet "with a range of safeguards to protect the disclosure of sensitive information". In other words, the "choice" of lawyer will be vetted by ASIO. The oversight of the detention and interrogation process by a Federal Judge or Magistrate is being sold as a safeguard in the system. The measure is more likely to guarantee that the dirty secrets of these spook operations remain within the walls of the establishment club. The judicial authority figures in question will already have reconciled themselves to the fact that persons known to be innocent of any wrong doing can be held without even being told the grounds on which they are being detained. Those held will have no right to silence; in fact they could be threatened with five years in prison for refusing to answer questions. All of these provisions are violations of fundamental human rights listed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The grab for more power for ASIO comes at the same time as the media devote considerable space to promoting the spy agency as doing a fine job of its anti-terrorism work. Supposedly, it foiled a terror plot against the 2000 Olympics in Sydney; uncovered a plan (maps and all) to assassinate Zionist mining magnate Joe Gutnick; thwarted an attempt to establish a support network for Jemaah Islamiah based on a mosque in the Sydney suburb of Dee Why. It has succeeded in having 13 organisations banned in this country and has the future of the local chapter of Hamas in its hands. The Government is satisfied that every intelligence measure that could have been taken to avoid the Bali tragedy was taken. ASIO cooperates in counter- terrorism teams with local police, their state protective security branches and the Australian Federal Police in every capital in the country. The arrest of a man in Adelaide has resulted. Even the series of raids on homes in different states and the upending of scores of peoples' lives were possible under the present arrangements. As recently as June 3, ASIO raided the homes of ten Iranian families in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Computers and documents were removed in an effort to link them terrorist organisations. The material was returned and no charges were laid. Calls from Senator Bob Brown for an investigation into the matter have been shrugged off. Stephen Hopper, lawyer for six Indonesian families also raided by ASIO, insists that intelligence information was leaked to The Weekend Australian that suggested that they had links to Jemaah Islamiah. Material taken from their homes was returned and ASIO reportedly has no further interest in the families. Mr Hopper's plea for a public statement from the Government clearing the families of any terrorist connection has also gone unheeded. Clearly, the relevant question about ASIO powers is how to curb them, not increase them. The potential for further misuse of its authority is too great to ignore. The Government may choose to broaden the purpose of the new powers. Deputy PM John Anderson made public comments on the confiscation of the passport belonging to suspected terrorist sympathiser Bilal Khazal, who had worked as an airline baggage handler a number of years ago, and on a proposal for new airport staff security cards. He said: "As I've announced, people who hold cards — airport security cards — will face the toughest and most stringent background checks of any country in the Western world, including checks for political involvement and attitude." The move to exclude people from a steadily widening range of jobs on the basis of "political attitude" could not be far behind if ASIO gets the endorsement implicit in the expansion of its powers. A lot hangs on the fate of the Bill coming before the Senate this week.