AUSTRALIA: US terror attacks used to introduce sweeping police powers
US terror attacks used to introduce sweeping police powers
By Mike Head
4 October 2001
At what is expected to be its last cabinet meeting before the federal
election, the Howard government has announced far-reaching attacks on
democratic rights, under the pretext of combatting terrorism in the wake
of the September 11 events in the United States.
Without offering the slightest evidence that terrorist groups are
operating in Australia, Tuesdays meeting unveiled plans to give
unprecedented detention and interrogation powers to the Australian
Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), introduce sweeping
British-style terrorism legislation and double the militarys Special
ASIO will be given the power to hold and interrogate anyone for up to 48
hours without charge or evidence. At present, criminal suspects can be
detained a maximum of four hours before being charged or released, and
they have the right to remain silent. But state and federal police, acting
with ASIO, will have the power to arrest people and bring them before a
prescribed authority whenever it is deemed necessary to protect the public
from politically motivated violence. Moreover, after obtaining a warrant
from a magistrate or administrative tribunal member, ASIO officers will be
able to order people to appear before the prescribed authority (likely to
be a court or tribunal) to provide information or produce documents, even
if they are not themselves suspected of terrorist activity.
The measures include possible five-year jail terms for people who refuse
to answer terrorism-related questions, Attorney-General Daryl Williams
revealed yesterday. The government has failed to provide further
information on the extent or implications of these powers. Civil liberties
organisations have warned that citizens, whether suspects or not, will be
compelled to answer questions, tearing up the legal principles of natural
justice and protection against self-incrimination. Furthermore, they may
be forced to do so without knowing the identities of their ASIO accusers
or what, if any, evidence exists against them.
Vague new offences, modelled on the British Terrorism Act 2000 will be
introduced, carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. As in the
Blair governments legislation, terrorism will be defined so broadly that
it includes alleged threats of violence intended to advance a political,
religious or ideological cause directed against government interests.
These provisions can easily be used to target political opponents and
dissidents. Furthermore, the government can proscribe so-called terrorist
organisations, jail their members and seize their property.
The militarys Special Forces, including the SAS Tactical Assault Group,
recently mobilised against the Tampa refugees, will be effectively
doubled. Crack units established during the Sydney Olympic Games will be
reactivated. Under the military call-out legislation pushed through
parliament just before the Olympics, the government can now use these
troops against civilian targets in order to suppress unrest.
In addition, armed plainclothes police will be placed at random on
selected domestic and international flights. Despite objections by the
airlines that the presence of weapons may endanger passenger safety, the
government has rejected more effective protections such as the
strengthening of cockpit doors. Finally, police and customs officers will
be given more power to seek and seize assets.
The government has flatly dismissed requests by journalists and civil
liberties groups for more information on its measures, claiming that such
information would threaten national security. Yet, in a media statement,
Attorney-General Williams admitted that there is no intelligence available
to indicate that Australia is an intended target of further terrorist
To claim that ASIO needs more powers to detect terrorists is ludicrous. It
already has the power to bug phones, instal listening devices in offices
and homes, intercept telecommunications, open peoples mail, monitor
on-line discussion, break into computer files and databases, seize
computers and use tracking personal devices. The ASIO Director-General or
his delegated officers can issue search and entry warrants, giving
officers a legal carte blanche to conduct operations against political
activists and organisations.
Moreover, ASIO is part of an extensive security and intelligence network,
that incorporates the external Australian Secret Intelligence Service
(ASIS), the prime ministers Office of National Assessments (ONA), the
state police Special Branches, the militarys Joint Intelligence Office
(JIO) and an electronic eavesdropping agency, the Defence Signals
With parliament already adjourned for the election, due within weeks, the
government will resort to extra-parliamentary means to introduce some of
its measures, setting a precedent for by-passing parliament in the name of
national security. Howard was anxious to unveil the package before calling
the election, because once he does, his government enters caretaker mode,
weakening its hand and requiring it to consult with the Labor Party on
major decisions. Accordingly, he brought forward by four weeks a report
from a high-level committee of government, military and intelligence
officials that was convened only five days earlier on September 26.
During last weeks parliamentary sittingthe last before the electionthe
government introduced or pushed through a battery of other laws
undermining democratic rights.
* Law enforcement agencies will be able to intercept telephone, Internet
and e-mail communications when purportedly investigating serious arson and
child pornography offences, under the Telecommunications Interception
Legislation Amendment Bill 2001.
* Under the Intelligence Services Act 2001, ASIS and the DSD have been
given criminal and civil immunity for their activities, and the public
naming of their members has been outlawed, matching protections already
enjoyed by ASIO. They have also been authorised to conduct surveillance
against Australian citizens overseas.
* The Crimes Act will be amended to increase the maximum penalty for
espionage from 7 to 25 years jail and broaden the definition of espionage
to include disclosing information about national security or defence. The
legislation also protects information about the security or defence of
another country under Australian possession or controla provision that
seems to presage new acts of colonialism.
* Seven anti-refugee bills were bulldozed through the Senate to legalise
the use of military force to expel asylum seekers, excise parts of the
country from the migration zone, build new offshore detention camps,
extinguish refugee appeals to courts, deport asylum seekers lacking
identity papers and override the international Refugee Convention
definition of refugee status.
ASIO raids terrorise Arab community
In the days leading up to the cabinet meeting, the government, assisted by
ASIO and a compliant media, sought to create the climate for its measures
by declaring that terror groups linked to Osama bin Laden were active in
Australia. Without advancing any evidence to substantiate these claims,
large-scale police raids were conducted in Sydneys Arabic community.
In one operation, an estimated 70 heavily-armed state and federal police,
detectives and ASIO officers searched at least five homes and interrogated
people in the working class suburbs of Campsie and Lakemba, seizing
passports, financial records and other documents. No doubt tipped off in
advance, media outlets played their part by splashing news of the raids
all over the front pages of weekend tabloid newspapers.
One woman told reporters that officers had held her face down at gunpoint,
interrogated her in front of her two young children and turned the
residence upside down. Outside Sydney, police and ASIO officers raided two
holiday camps run by an Islamic youth organisation. Outraged members and
parents gave television stations video footage showing that the camps were
used for childrens games, including soccer and water sports.
No arrests were made during or after the raids, making it obvious that
they were conducted without any evidence of terrorist links. The only
purpose for the raids was to intimidate the Arabic and Islamic community
and boost the governments security crackdown.
The government has refused requests by the New South Wales Council for
Civil Liberties Council to produce information justifying the raids.
Council president Cameron Murphy told the World Socialist Web Site: The
past few days have seen Sydneys Arabic community terrorised. People have
been held on the floor at gunpoint. ASIO is conducting investigations
without any basis, seemingly operating on anonymous tip-offs. We have no
way of knowing whether the raids are lawful or not. We have been trying to
obtain the necessary information, and so has the media, but the government
has refused to hand it over.
Murphy commented that the raids demonstrated that ASIO already had immense
powers. Every Australian has reason to fear ASIOs wide powers, which the
government is now just extending. Under the new measures, if ASIO decides
to intervene against you, it can compel you to answer questions, without
being accountable to anyone. Everything is justified in the name of
national security. ASIO is an unaccountable organisation. By giving it
more power, the government is undermining the democratic process.
A bipartisan bidding war
The opposition Labor Party created the conditions for these moves, with
its leader, Kim Beazley, accusing the government of being slow off the
mark in boosting the powers of the police, military and intelligence
apparatuses. Beazley also pledged, in advance, bipartisan backing for any
measures that the government took, including its open-ended commitment to
participate in the US military response to the September 11 terror
Even before it has officially commenced, the election campaign has become
a bidding war to tear up civil liberties, with Labor campaigning under the
slogan: Security at home and security abroad. Beazley attempted to upstage
the government by releasing his own 11-point package of anti-terrorist
measures to boost the powers and resources of ASIO and the SAS.
He called for the military to join the police and intelligence agencies in
creating a homeland security forcea plan that would utilise the military
call-out powers introduced for last years Olympics. A Labor government
would establish a British-style Ministry of Home Affairs to coordinate
police and intelligence networks. Beazley also advocated the establishment
of a Coast Guard to assist the navy in patrolling the countrys borders and
turning away unwanted refugees; the recruitment of federal air marshals to
control airport and aircraft security; and tighter immigration checks.
Releasing his package, Beazley emphasised that the Labor Party regarded
its measures as indefinite and not merely targetted against those
responsible for the terrorist outrages in the US. It is important to
stress that these policies should be implemented because they are a
necessary and permanent requirement, over and above the need to respond to
the attacks of September 11, he said.
Many in media and ruling circles have seized upon the events of September
11 to bring forward previously prepared plans to curtail democratic
rights. Under the cover of protecting citizens from terrorism, they are
embracing measures that will be used to suppress political dissent and
An editorial in Rupert Murdochs the Australian began with the slogan
whatever it takes invoked by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US
President George W. Bush to push for draconian police and security powers.
In this climate, civil liberties must inevitably be balanced against the
overriding threat to national and personal security, it declared.
The Melbourne Age, which has a more liberal reputation, was even more
blunt. There will be overreactions and infringements of the civil
liberties of some individuals. We wish we could say these new laws are
alarmist and unnecessary. Sadly, such a luxury no longer exists.
Other commentators have been somewhat critical of the Howard governments
response. In its editorial, the Australian Financial Review expressed
reservations about giving ASIO unfettered power. It proposed instead that
the security agencies make fuller use of traditional undercover methods.
It noted that the already well-funded US intelligence services appear to
have failed to pick up the bin Laden terrorist network more through their
inability to penetrate its ranks using well-established techniques than
through inadequate powers.
For decades, ASIO has conducted surveillance, harassment and dirty tricks
operations against socialists, militant workers and organisations, and
individuals regarded as opponents of the political establishment. Files
were kept on the activities, personal lives, movements and associates of
all known members, supporters and sympathisers of left-wing organisations,
including opponents of the Vietnam War.
During the 1990-91 Gulf War, Labor prime minister Hawke and his senior
ministers personally supervised and received reports on the undercover
work of ASIO, such as phone-tapping, mail interception, bugging,
infiltration of meetings and organisations. Similar operations were
mounted by the Howard government in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics and
this years Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Brisbane,
now postponed due to the imminent US-led assault on Afghanistan.
In a revealing comment, the officer in charge of CHOGM security,
Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson expressed dismay at the
gatherings cancellation. I am disappointed and many of the police officers
and police members who planned and prepared for it would be probably
disappointed as well. His remarks indicate that the security agencies
regarded CHOGM, which had attracted anti-capitalist protests, and for
which thousands of police and troops had been mobilised, as a testing
ground for military-intelligence operations.
CHOGM has been shelved until next year, but the Howard government, backed
to the hilt by the Labor Party, is now utilising the events in the United
States to arm the security agencies with powers and resources that go far
beyond anything previously seen in Australia.
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