September 26, 2014
The first tranche of the Abbott government's new anti-terror legislation---the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No 1) yesterday passed the Senate yesterday with bipartisan support. This amends the ASIO Act 1979 by adding a new section 35P (amongst others) to extend existing state and federal prohibitions on the disclosure of information regarding policing for anti-terrorist purposes.
The bill gives intelligence organisations the power to access personal computers and the "entire Australian internet" with a single warrant. These powers don't go far enough since ASIO also wants mandatory data retention laws for telecommunications and internet service providers.
More specifically, the legislation just passed allows ASIO to use third party computers and networks in order to hack the target of a computer access warrant; a measure the government has argued is necessary because of increasing technical sophistication among surveillance targets. The legislation also changes the definition of computer for the purposes of warrants to "one or more computers", "one or more computer systems", "one or more computer networks", or "any combination of the above".
Journalists and whistleblowers (such as like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning) will now face up to ten years in gaol if they disclose information about "special intelligence operations" (SIO) (and whether any particular operation is an SIO will itself be kept secret). There is no “public interest” defence. The spooks get what they want from the politicians.
All efforts to introduce safeguards in the form of reporting requirements, sunset clauses and public interest immunity were rejected by both the Coalition and Labor. An amendment secured by the Palmer United Party to actually increase the penalty for identifying an intelligence officer from one to ten years' imprisonment. Only the Greens, Leyonhjelm, John Madigan and Xenophon refused to support the amended laws.
Scott Ludlam fought hard to keep the debate going, and moved a series of amendments that would have protected journalists and whistleblowers, wind back some of the broad new computer warrant powers and increase oversight of ASIO.
The threat of terrorism to Australia has been greatly exaggerated. The idea that IS can attack Australia from its bases in Syria and Iraq is a fantasy and a deliberate scare mongering by the government aided and abetted by the national security media. This evokes an imagined fear, which is then vindicated by an actual event--eg., the shooting death of an 18-year-old so called "terrorism suspect" (Abdul Numan Haider) and double-stabbing of police officers in Melbourne. The Abbott government then plays the counter-terrorism card hard to maximise their chances of re-election.
They are ably supported by the tabloid mainstream media with its expansive media coverage. The right wing white supremacists---eg., the Australian Defence League (ADL) and the Christian right who are determined to prevent the construction of mosques in Australia--- are then emboldened in their attacks on Muslims. This fits in with the more generalised pattern of abuse and intimidation which Muslims in Australia have been subjected to since the inauguration of The War on Terror in 2001
The overwhelming police response so far is aimed at members of Australia’s Middle Eastern, Muslim minority and that the white supremacist, bigoted racist wallies who want to burn mosques and attack young Muslim women in the street, are being left to foment their own special kind of trouble.
Giving more and stronger powers – of arrest, detention, investigation and interrogation of suspects – to the police and ASIO represent steps towards an authoritarian government.