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.”