Over the last eight months at least seven political activists around Australia have been approached by federal or state intelligence agents for information about other activists.
Green Left Weekly spoke to human rights lawyer and researcher Dale Mills who explains what rights activists have — and what they should do — if they are approached for information by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) or other political police.
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What are the rights of political activists should they be approached by ASIO, the Australian Federal Police (AFP), state police special branch units or other political police agencies and asked for information about other activists?
With regard to the state police or the AFP, the universal advice given by lawyers is just don't talk to them without speaking to a lawyer first or having a witness with you.
The police are not interested in collecting information to understand the world. What they are interested in is collecting evidence for a prosecution case either against you or against your friends.
So if you are approached at most get their business card, say thank you very much and say that you don't have anything to say to them. There is nothing that you can tell them that will help you in any way and you might accidentally incriminate yourself or give them information, intelligence or gossip about some of your friends or other activists.
So there is no point in engaging with the police at all.
Do any of these police agencies have powers to compel you to give them information?
No. With ASIO the situation is slightly different but the general advice is pretty much the same. If you are approached by ASIO and asked to have a chat, or they want to take you for a coffee or they come to your home, you can say you don't want to talk to them and tell them to please go away.
That should be enough in most cases but there is an exception in relation to serious issues pertaining to terrorism where there is something called a questioning warrant — and there are detention warrants — under special powers ASIO was given by the government.
This has only been used against Tamil and Middle Eastern communities. If this warrant is being executed there will be lots of paperwork, they will come with the AFP and they won't ask you for a chat but will arrest you and take you to a location for questioning. And certain obligations kick in there.
When the police don't know your name and address, there may be an obligation to tell them, depending on the circumstances and the State or Territory in which you live.
But for ordinary activists, if ASIO or the police turn up asking for information, simply say you don't want to talk to them and close the door or hang up the phone.
Some people feel a bit embarrassed about being approached by ASIO or the police in this way. They ask themselves: why me, why have they approached me? Do they think I am the sort of person who would inform on my friends or fellow activists?
This is a very normal reaction. But the thing to do to get beyond that is to tell your fellow activists that you have been approached. Tell them how you were approached and some of the things that they said. By doing that you get rid of the secrecy and mystery surrounding the approach.
The ASIO and other intelligence agents' job is to try to collect gossip to try and neutralise political activists. So it is good to know when they come around that we don't have to talk to them to help them stop our activism.
Have such informal interviews or conversations been used to compromise activists?
Yes, it is fairly easy for them to do this.
What happens is they have a chat with you and then when they ask to meet up on a second occasion they say: “But you have met us before and what will your fellow activists think if they knew you have spoken to us in the past?”
That is one tactic they use.
Another tactic they use is, if you are facing a charge, they say if you help us with this bit of information we can help you get off the charge. That may not even be true, but it is something they might say in the hope of getting you to cooperate.
Generally they want you to cooperate voluntarily and so they will be relatively nice. But if push comes to shove they do threaten people to try to get them to cooperate.
This is why the safest thing to do is, right at the beginning, say: “I have nothing to say, please go away.” Then tell your fellow activists about the approach so everything is out in the open. There is not much that ASIO can do about that.
What is the legal situation with regards to revealing the names of agents of ASIO or other political police agencies?
There was an organisation called Campaign for the Abolition of Political Police. They used to turn up outside ASIO's office, which was then in Melbourne, and they used to take photos or otherwise to try to identify employees of ASIO.
A special law was passed to deal with that which made it an offence to identify an employee of ASIO. So if an ASIO agent does visit you and says, “I'm John Smith” then it would be an offence to go to the public and say: “John Smith works for ASIO”.
But that is all the law applies to. The fact that you were visited, the content of the conversation or what they were asking you about – all of that can be made public. And it is a good idea that it is made public.
ASIO has enjoyed a massive increase in funding over the last decade. I believe it was something like a 540% increase since 2001 and more than a doubling of its staff. Do you think there has been an expansion of ASIO's role from keeping an eye on activists to actually intervening in legal political activity?
That's an interesting question. Traditionally ASIO has been seen as a sort of private force for conservative forces in Australia. That is why when the Whitlam Labor government came to power in 1972, many Labor ministers were extremely suspicious of ASIO and the police special branches attached to the various states.
Since then ASIO has tended not to intervene but to focus more on intelligence gathering and analysis. But since the 9/11 bombings in 2001, I think there has been a move for ASIO to start intervening in a more political way.
Partly this has been done through legislation which has given ASIO police powers with the AFP so it can detain people for questioning. So there has been a blurring between day-to-day police work and intelligence gathering.
Over the last eight months, ASIO has approached quite few people on the Left (who have then gone public about it) and that is an intervention in day-to-day politics, which is very unusual.
Before these spate of approaches, the last person from the Left that I know was approached by political police was in 2007, and it was by state police intelligence. And prior to that I heard of approaches in 2002-3.
So what has happened since 2012 is unusual. We can only speculate what is behind this. It could be a permanent new involvement in day-to-day political affairs or it could be a more limited preparation for protests in Sydney and Brisbane during the G20 summit next year.
Watch the interview: