Yet another free pass for Aussie spooks

Do our politicians fear questioning ASIO?

The world is safer from terrorists today than the 1970s when, to name just one example, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked four jet aircraft bound for New York City and took them to the remote Dawson's Field in Jordan. Photo: [© Bettmann/CORBIS]

The world is safer from terrorists today than the 1970s when, to name just one example, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked four jet aircraft bound for New York City and took them to the remote Dawson's Field in Jordan. Photo: [© Bettmann/CORBIS]

Something doesn't add up. ASIO is doing pretty well. So are our police. Australians sleep safer in their beds than ever before. Yet the government is rushing to pass new laws to "protect" us so fast they're even forgetting the widgets that make them work.

The Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 is currently working its way through parliament. It's intended to allow Australia to sign up to the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime, the treaty the world is now stuck with.

More importantly, at least from a practical point of view, it requires telecommunications carriers to respond to "ongoing domestic preservation notices" — that is, to start logging a customer's internet activity when requested — and everything that would imply on topics ranging from internet service providers having to ensure the security of the logged data to what might happen to it once it's in the hands of a foreign agency with less of a reputation for honesty than our own.

But as CSO Online reported yesterday, the Bill was written in such a hurry that the description of the crimes it will apply to didn't match that required by the Convention.

As drafted, the law could never had fulfilled its prime purpose.


It's OK now, though. The House of Representatives passed some amendments (PDF). Nice save, Dear Government. But most of the problems identified by a parliamentary inquiry have been ignored.

"The Attorney General's Department has done the bare minimum they thought necessary to acknowledge the existence of the critical and unanimous committee report," said Senator Scott Ludlam of the Australian Greens in a statement.

"There is nothing on [handing over information that could lead to an Australian suffering] the death penalty, nothing about strengthening the role of the Ombudsman, nothing addressing data destruction. The Government was urged by its own MPs to fix this legislation but chose to leave it in a dire state," he said.

Indeed. So what's the rush? Why can't we take the time to get this right?

For all the endlessly-recycled footage of aircraft crashing into twin towers on the weekend, and all the heartache that caused, we do need to remember that it was ten years ago.

No Australians have died from a terrorist attack since 2005, when a Melbourne man died in the London bombing.

The last to die on Australian soil was on 23 November 1986 in the Turkish consulate car-bombing. The man killed was Hagob Levonian, the bomber.

For those of us who grew up on TV images of the Red Army Faction and the Provisional IRA and jetliners exploding on Dawson's Field,"(pictured above)" this just doesn't compare.

It's now almost nine years since 88 Australians, along with 114 others, perished in the Bali bombings.

Yet the government is in a rush. And not for the first time.

Back in March, the government was keen to pass the Telecommunications Interception and Intelligence Services Legislation Amendment Act 2011 — different again from July's Intelligence Services Legislation Amendment Act 2011. Confused? You ought to be. I certainly was.

So was Ludlam, who seems to one of the very few politicians paying proper attention to this stuff.

Well, not confused. Frustrated.

"Amendments to the Telecommunications Interception Act seem to happen fairly frequently. They seem to come through here every couple of weeks, and I am only exaggerating by a little bit. There is a creeping expansion of the ability of Australia's intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies to tap our phones, to read our web traffic and to use all of the tools of surveillance that are used around the world to spy on people, whether in democratic societies or not," Ludlam told the Senate.

"We have an agency with an important mandate, national security, with a rapidly expanding budget and a rapidly expanding staff that is about to go into its new home. And yet somehow we are meant to simply pass this bill today — and I understand that the opposition will be supporting it here, as they did in the House of Representatives — without any essential justification for why we are so dramatically expanding its mandate."

Ludlam understands that intelligence agencies do difficult, dangerous, thankless and of necessity secretive work, as he makes clear in his speech. You can read it for yourself (part 1, part 2) or watch the video (part 1, part 2). I understand that too.

I also understand that we can probably thank ASIO and the other services for their vigilance in keeping us so safe this past decade. As George Orwell is reputed to have said (but probably didn't), "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."

But ASIO has also tripled in size this past decade, and its powers have already been extended several times. The same goes for other agencies. Should we not demand they clearly justify their requests for even more money and even more power?

"You cannot even request their paperclip inventory under the Freedom of Information Act anymore, because everything is simply shrouded under this mantle of national security," Ludlam said. "Not even the CIA or British intelligence agencies are immune or completely exempt from freedom of information, but that is the kind of thinking that dominates in Australia."

That, and this... haste.

Contact Stilgherrian at, or follow him on Twitter at @stilgherrian.

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