The "war on terror" and the war on our right to know
Bob Briton Since December last year Australia has had new "anti-terrorism" laws in place. People have been detained and questioned for allegedly having links to or sympathies for terrorist organisations like al-Qaida, Jemaah Islamiyah and Lashkar-e- Toiba. A 20-year-old man in Sydney was the first person charged under the new laws: one count of making preparations for a terrorist act. He faces penalties which include life imprisonment. The full details of the allegations made by ASIO and the Australian Federal Police against Zeky Zak Mallah have not been made public. Under the new legislation there is no requirement for that to happen. In fact, there is a ban on journalists or others disclosing any information relating to the issuing of a warrant and conduct connected to such warrants for up to 28 days. Jail terms of up to five years await them for revealing any "operational information" within a two-year period from the issuing of the warrant. Even then, the Government would advise interested parties to get legal advice. "Operational information" includes any information being put to the person being questioned — who may or may not be suspected of terrorist activities — and anything related to how ASIO might have gathered its information. Media concern was so high that the senior management at John Fairfax, News Limited, SBS, Commercial Radio Australia, the Australian Press Council and the ABC wrote a joint letter in early December to Senators then about to consider amendments to the Terrorism Act. Their pleas were ignored. Unaccountable Even though it has now had its powers enhanced to the point that it becomes a fully-fledged secret police force, there are few controls on ASIO and plenty of room for it to manoeuvre within the law. Bill Blick is the Inspector-General of Security and Intelligence but he can only investigate allegations of strict breaches of the law. Parliamentary Committees have limited powers. They cannot publicly delve into operational matters and often rely on the openness of people who have taken a spy's oath to secrecy. A call from defence and intelligence expert Professor Des Ball for new structures of oversight under the Cabinet Security Committee will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. The potential for corruption within ASIO, given the experience of the relatively much more open state police forces, is obvious. It sets the scene for the Australian equivalent of the Birmingham Six or the Guilford Four, as pointed out in the mainstream press. You would think that in these circumstances our newspaper, TV and radio news would contain nothing or precious little about the "terror suspects" in our midst. However, nearly the exact opposite is the case. These services have regular articles about some of the 100 Australians that ASIO is reportedly keeping under surveillance as part of its "anti-terrorism" brief. The Herald Sun of the 11th of December had a list of eleven of "AUSTRALIA'S TOP SUSPECTS". The list included David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, both now detained illegally in Guantanamo Bay by the US military. Also listed is Jack "Jihad" Thomas [the Herald Sun's description] who allegedly trained with al-Qaida but whose activities predate the new "anti- terror" laws. The media reports about Mr Thomas allege that the Melbourne man trained with Jemaah Islamiah instructor Azman Hashim at a boot camp near Katoomba, west of Sydney. At the same time Rob Stary, a lawyer for Mr Thomas, cannot comment on the two-year police and ASIO investigation because of the new Federal legislation. Smear campaign "National security sources" nowadays appear to be the authors of much of the information about "terror suspects" and their associates. Occasionally, these sources appear to have a bit of fun with what they release to the public. "Karate training in the bush is a — long way short of a breach under the terror legislation", one source is meant to have told The Australian late last year in connection with Mr Thomas' case. The damage done to the reputations and livelihoods of Mr Thomas and others as a result of this type of ongoing smear campaign is no laughing matter. Of course, the head of ASIO Dennis Richardson and federal Attorney General Philip Ruddock are both exempt from constraint. Ruddock has been a regular on TV and radio and opens the pipeline to a limited amount of information — information of his choosing. Allegations He can comment coldly about all sorts of things. He has talked about how French authorities detained Australian citizen and the wife of Willie Brigitte, Melanie Brown, even though there is no evidence she had engaged in terrorist activities in Australia or elsewhere. He has explained how Brigitte was handed over to the French even though he was suspected, supposedly, of planning terror attacks in Australia, including one on the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor! How mysterious that ASIO never sought to interview Mr Brigitte! Justice Minister Chris Ellison has also been a good source of virtually unanswerable allegations. He told the John Laws radio program that Bilal and Maher Khazal were "of interest" to Australian authorities and that ASIO was investigating links between Bilal and al-Qaida. His Australian passport has been surrendered and Ellison has declared that any request from the Lebanese Government for the extradition of the two men would be given top priority. We are told that the Khazal brothers were convicted in absentia on terrorism charges for helping to finance an organisation that carried on a violent campaign that included the bombing of a McDonald's restaurant. Compare this approach to the reputations and privacy of Australian citizens with the way the Federal Government guards its secrets from public scrutiny. FOI beyond reach Take, for example, the case of the request from The Australian newspaper under Freedom of Information for documents about the increasing tax burden on workers. Treasurer Peter Costello issued so-called "conclusive certificates" that prevent the Administrative Appeals Tribunal from hearing any appeal. The matter will have to go to a special hearing of the Federal Court. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer used "conclusive certificates" to block the release of documents about the legality of David Hicks' detention at Guantanamo. In other cases, the cost of acquiring documents under FOI is proving to be a strong defensive wall for the government. Media organisations are denied the right to plead hardship. Last year News Limited decided not to go ahead with an FOI request about violent incidents in immigration detention centres after it was quoted a fee of $158,672.03 for the documents. Charges for FOI requests have gone up 300 per cent since 1996. The number of requests has risen by just 5.5 per cent. Last year initial quotes for documents requested under the Federal FOI Act totalled $928,124. Only $150,636 or 16 per cent of that was collected. Clearly, a lot of people dropped their pursuit of the truth when faced with the bill. The government also uses simple delaying tactics. It took over a year to provide The Australian with information about the Australian Museum. Nobody within the bureaucracy, it seems, gets into trouble for exceeding the deadlines for completion of requests. The referral of refused requests to the Administration Appeals Tribunal is also a useful delaying tactic. In other cases, the department in question might act in a way that undermines the commercial interests of the applicant. The Australian Tax Office and journalist Michael McKinnon were engaged in a long and costly battle last year over documents revealing the ATO's poor debt collection practices. The ATO responded to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision in favour of Mr McKinnon by releasing the information free of charge to all the media at the same time. The Federal government sees the 22-year-old Freedom of Information Act as a problem to be managed. Labor's homeland security spokesperson Robert McClelland says "The extent to which the Howard Government is misusing the processes of Freedom of Information is becoming a very concerning trend towards secrecy." For example, a study produced by the Melbourne Institute showing the ineffectiveness of the Work for the Dole scheme was obtained under FOI. Other stories bob up in the news from time to time. The government can side-step FOI entirely by using other devices. The workings of the few remaining government enterprises are usually exempt from FOI. The "commercial-in-confidence" excuse covers most dealings with the growing number of private operators and other contractors. FOI will not give access to embarrassing material registered as a "Cabinet Paper". The trend toward secrecy is a "win/win" for the Federal government as it becomes more effective at defending itself from legislation that was intended to inform the legitimate concerns of the people. At the same time, it uses the new Terrorism Act and ASIO powers to smear individuals it does not approve of. The labour movement must challenge and reverse this trend. Given the level of concern even at official levels, it is clear that it will find many allies in the struggle.