Secret review proposes new spook powers

May 8, 2010

A secret review of Australia’s intelligence services has proposed giving them new powers to spy on Australians, carry weapons and conduct secretive paramilitary operations in other countries.

Powers to carry weapons are proposed for employees of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), which has already received a vast expansion of legal powers since 2001, extra personnel and a new purpose-built Canberra headquarters.

The Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), Australia’s foreign electronic bugging agency, is currently prohibited from spying on Australians. But the review recommends that it be allowed to intercept communications within Australia. The justification given was the need to combat transnational crime, including terrorism and cyber warfare.

Citing “intelligence sources”, the Fairfax press stands by its April 28 story of the secret review, despite official denials. Moreover, the story has the ring of truth, given published plans in February to expand ASIO’s role to use its special powers against “people smugglers”, and the February launch of the Australian government’s white paper on counter-terrorism.


ASIO has traditionally operated as a government bureaucracy analysing “intelligence”, with assistance from technical experts (to bug phones and computers). It liaises with the federal, state and territory police services (who use undercover police officers to infiltrate some activist organisations).

In a dangerous blurring of powers between the various agencies, ASIO has been given additional police-like powers since 2001. These include the right to question people under questioning and detention warrants — a role more traditionally given to the police.
ASIO’s inexperience in this area led to ham-fisted ASIO operatives abusing their powers to such an extent that interview evidence has been ruled unfair.

In November 2007, Justice Michael Adams of the New South Wales Supreme Court found ASIO officers had wrongly pressured Izhar Ul-Haq to give them information — finding that ASIO had committed the offences of false imprisonment and common law kidnapping.

Fairfax articles said the review also recommended ASIO employees carry weapons, further deepening the process of ASIO becoming a secret police force rather than desk-bound bureaucrats.

Defence Signals Directorate

According to reports, the review recommended the external technical agency, the Defence Signals Directorate, be allowed to monitor communications within Australia.

The exact details are secret, but it is thought that one advantage of having the Defence Signals Directorate monitoring Australian communications is that it would be possible to vacuum up large amounts of data from electronic communications without the more usual police taps of one phone call or email address at a time.

There would be less administrative burden and, presumably, fewer restrictions or checks on abuse.


Reports said the review also proposed the Australian Secret Intelligence Service be given guns so it may carry out secret military activities abroad. Currently, ASIS officers are thought to be more hands-on than ASIO employees, working overseas under diplomatic or similar cover and recruiting local spies.

The expansion of ASIS activities to include military or “paramilitary activities”, as reported in the Fairfax articles, would not be justified in international law unless Australia was in a state of armed conflict with those countries.

Apart from being illegal, such paramilitary activities would resemble the terrorism that the Australian government is otherwise all too eager to condemn.

ASIS had its permission to carry weapons withdrawn following a bungled practice raid on the Sheraton Hotel in Melbourne in 1983. ASIS officers stormed the hotel, terrorised guests and created a situation where there was the risk of a shoot-out between ASIS and local police.

ASIS had forgotten to tell the managers of the Sheraton, or anyone else, that it was taking part in a training exercise.

In 1972, Australian newspapers publicly identified ASIS and reported that it was recruiting university students for training in espionage activities in several Asian countries. Prior to that, ASIS had operated in secret and with no statutory authority for 20 years.

As many of the proposed reforms may not need new legislation, similar secrecy may prevail over the reforms, with any discussion being restricted to Cabinet.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.