Friday, 20 October 2017

ASIO: The Secret Police Force doing enormous damage to Democracy, The New Daily, 21 October, 2017.

ASIO: The secret police force doing enormous damage to democracy

Director general of security and head of ASIO Duncan Lewis and Australian Attorney-General George Brandis. Photo: AAP
John Stapleton

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, better known as ASIO, was born out of the anti-Communist hysteria of the post-war era, and has always been closely associated with the conservative side of politics.

The unprecedented expansion of its powers and budgets under the Abbott/Turnbull governments has provoked widespread concern among academics, lawyers and civil libertarians.

This week’s release of ASIO’s Annual Report has done nothing to allay its many critics, some of whom describe ASIO as a parallel secret police force doing enormous damage to Australian democracy.

The report is significant because ASIO is the only one of Australia’s ultra-secretive security agencies required by law to present an annual report.

As such, this is the single window the public gets to determine whether the billions being poured into national security are being well spent.

Major points of contention are the detaining of people without charge and the exemption of ASIO officers from charges of illegal conduct.

Any suspect who speaks out about what happens to them while in detention faces a jail term, as does any journalist who writes about what are classified as Special Intelligence Operations (SIOs).

Barrister Greg Barns, adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange, argues that with the gifting of ever more powers to ASIO, Australian democracy is dying.

He describes this month’s spectacle of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the state premiers lining up to declare suspects can be arrested for 14 days without charge as sickening.

ASIO could, during the course of this detention, deprive people of sleep, keep people in isolation and refuse to allow access to family members, a clear breach on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Mr Barns told The New Daily: “ASIO now has the capacity to invade every person’s every communication and movement. With no Human Rights Act to protect against abuse this means ASIO can act with virtual immunity from challenge.

“The use of taxpayer funds to surveil, harass and spy on NGOs and ethnic groups is now ASIO’s bread and butter. It is generally unaccountable about how funds are deployed because secrecy laws protect against disclosure. It is very concerning.”

These concerns were echoed by eminent former diplomat Dr Alison Broinowski who told The New Daily that MI5 in Britain had made similar announcements on the curtailment of civil liberties this week.

“As always, needing more staff, facing more threats, foiling more plots, catching or killing more terrorists. Having got the states on side, Turnbull’s plan is to be able to hold people without charge not just for 14 days but up to 28 days, and people as young as 10,” Dr Alison Broinowski said.

“At the least, we need supervision of what happens to them while they are there.”

Not even the details of their enhanced powers are reflected in ASIO’s annual report, which is packed with bureaucratic language such as: “Within ASIO, we continued to progress strategic reforms to ensure we are focused on work that provides clear value for our stakeholders and that we have the right culture, people and systems. We re-examined our value proposition …”

The failure to address the numerous political, legal and civil liberty issues facing the organisation has come as no surprise to observers.

Professor of law at the University of NSW George Williams told The New Daily the 67 pieces of anti-terror legislation passed since 9/11 have shown fundamental flaws in Australia’s political system.

“This government has seen some very significant expansions in the power of ASIO, particularly the power to conduct Special Intelligence Operations,” Professor Williams said.

“These powers can place it outside normal legal processes, and lie well outside the powers of similar agencies in the US and the UK.

“Journalists face up to a decade in jail for reporting on an SIO, even if it is in the public interest.

“There are inadequate checks and balances. In key areas, the powers gifted to ASIO are disproportionate. There are a long list of things where the operations of ASIO now lie outside normal democratic values.”


The US has been under the spotlight globally since Trump was elected. The allegation of Russian intelligence operations interfering in the recent US elections is of great interest to Western nations around the world. In relation to that allegation and many others, President Trump has invoked a new trope: "fake news".
There's an understandable degree of horror on the part of many who can see that using "fake" as an adjective so often linked to "news" runs a risk of permanently damaging our concept of news within a free press as a valuable element of a democratic system. Nonetheless, people have short memories.
It's only the older people who smile and say "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose". This came back to mind when a recent article in The New Daily was drawn to my attention. Its headline made the bold claim that ASIO were the secret police doing enormous damage to our democracy. It asserts that ASIO "was born out of the anti-communist hysteria of the post-war era and has always been closely associated with the conservative side of politics".
The unsuspecting reader might take this to be a statement of fact. It was presumably intended to convey the idea that people right-of-centre like the idea of secret intelligence agencies and whipped themselves into a false frenzy about communists after WWII, hence we have this dastardly agency called ASIO.
What is not said is also what is conveyed: sensible lefties would not have been so sucked in by the hysteria. A quick look into ASIO history tells a different story. It was in fact set up by Labor under Ben Chifley. Under the "five eyes" intelligence sharing, our government knew from material acquired through Operation Venona, run by the United States, that there were Russian operatives active in Australia during and after WWII.
Chifley's famous 1949 speech referring to the "light on the hill" may have drawn inspiration from the parable of salt and light at Matthew 5:14: "You are a light to the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden." 
But in setting up ASIO he knew, as our allies knew, there were "reds under the bed". In fact, there was one in Herbert Evatt's office, who was attorney-general at the time.
So ASIO was set up by Labor, not the Liberals, and not because of post-war anti-communist hysteria (read false or exaggerated) but in fact because of shared five-eyes intelligence confirming the Russian operatives. (That Labor subsequently sought to disown Chifley's child and argued that Menzies had manipulated if not "faked" the whole Petrov defection is irrelevant. The official history of ASIO has confirmed the "truth of the matter". Don't expect any apologies from Labor.)
So just in that one example you can see how our media can feed us rubbish in the most indirect way. The bias or misinformation is slipped in not as comment but as scene-setting fact. Arguably that is the least open and frank way.
Another example of misinformation or fake news might be the ever-so-often run line that right-of-centre politicians are racists.... 

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