11 September 2011

Eternal vigilance, etc

The national security sector is often like a black box: we aren't (on occasion quite appropriately) allowed to look inside and have few means of evaluating the effectiveness of a security agency's performance. Some achievements are not publicised. Some threats are not substantive.

The ABC reports that -
On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Australia's top spy has revealed the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) is investigating more potential threats than ever before.
The report provides no context, so it's difficult to determine whether there are more threats, ASIO is better-led and better-resourced, ASIO's priorities have changed, or the statement about "more potential threats" is a delightful bureaucratic fiction. The organisation's history suggests that there are grounds for caution.

The report continues -
In a rare interview, ASIO director-general David Irvine says he is worried about the potential of an attack similar to the recent shootings and bombings in Norway.

The spy boss says his organisation has a large number of active investigations into Australians who are "toying with the ideology of extremism".

Mr Irvine told ABC News 24 that the spy agency is currently investigating "a whole series of potential threats".

"We do have a very small number of people in our midst whose intention are not necessarily all that benign," he said.

"It is important that for the safety of Australians and the security of the country that we continue to monitor and to conduct intelligence activities that will seek to thwart that threat."
He would say that, wouldn't he.
ASIO has trebled in size over the past decade and now has unprecedented powers.

But Mr Irvine defended the intelligence organisation's rapid expansion since September 11, saying it is "certainly justified".
Alas, no indication of whether the "rapid expansion" has been effective.
"If you were to ask me what had been the most significant changes in ASIO in the last 10 years, I would say that dealing with the terrorist problem has required us to take on new resources for a start, use new techniques, use new technology," he said.

"Our legislation has had to have been adjusted to enable us to manage this at the time [of] quite different phenomenon - different to anything we faced in the past." ... "I don't think we can be complacent and I don't think now, 10 years later, following the death of bin Laden and so on, I don't think now is yet the time to relax our vigilance," he said.
ASIO's 2009-10 report to Parliament was accompanied by the statement -
The tempo of work undertaken by the Organisation in 2009–10 remained high and included completing over 38,000 visa Security Assessments, 98,000 counter-terrorism checks and over 22,000 personnel Security Assessments.

In providing security-related advice to Government, ASIO published over 3,200 reports. Beyond Government, ASIO provided advice to industry sectors via the Business Liaison Unit. Over the reporting period there was a significant increase of 33 per cent in the number of subscribers to ASIO’s Business Liaison Unit website.

The ASIO report emphasises the need for interagency cooperation and operational coordination, involving both information and capability sharing.

Measures identified in the report include ASIO’s implementation of a key recommendation of the Counter Terrorism White Paper in establishing the Counter Terrorism Control Centre, as well as establishing the pilot for a National Interception Technical Assistance Centre to assist a range of Australian authorities empowered to carry out legally authorised interception operations.

In his executive review the Director-General of Security identified the continuing work of the Organisation into the future "The forthcoming period will be an important and challenging one. National security threats today emerge and mutate more rapidly. As a result, ASIO expects no let-up in the intensity or pace of its operating environment."

In response to the ever persistent nature of the security environment, ASIO embarked upon a business modernisation program to ensure the continued agility of the Organisation and its ability to respond to fast emerging threats into the future.
The organisation's shortly moving into the biggest glasshouse in Canberra, strategically placed between two main roads and within close proximity to several parks. Let's hope that no-one throws stones or something more deadly.

George Williams in the SMH offers a characteristically nuanced comment, arguing that -
Australia responded to September 11, 2001, with an extraordinary burst of law-making. In the ensuing decade, the Federal Parliament enacted 54 pieces of anti-terrorism legislation; 48 of these were passed under the Howard government, an average of one new anti-terrorism law every seven weeks.

The numbers are striking. A study by Canadian Professor Kent Roach found that "Australia has exceeded the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada in the sheer number of new anti-terrorism laws that it has enacted since September 11, 2001. Australia's hyper-legislation strained the ability of the parliamentary opposition and civil society to keep up, let alone provide effective opposition to, the relentless legislative output."

The numbers tell only part of the story. Of greater importance is the reach of the laws in introducing restrictions on speech through sedition offences and censorship; detention and questioning for up to a week by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation of Australian citizens not suspected of any crime; the banning of organisations by government; control orders that can enable house arrest for up to a year; detention without charge or trial for up to 14 days; covert surveillance of non-suspects; and warrantless searches of private property by police.

As these examples demonstrate, exceptional powers and sanctions thought to lie outside the rules of a liberal democracy, except during wartime, have become part of Australian law. Moreover, they remain on the statute book, and have taken on a character of permanence.
Williams goes on to comment that -
Australia's experience shows how inferior laws result from poor processes of enactment and review. The nation needed new anti-terrorism laws, but too many of the laws we received reflect problems of process and political judgment.

Australia's first set of anti-terrorism laws set a bad precedent. They were driven through the House of Representatives on March 13, 2002, the day after they were introduced. They demonstrated a theme that applied until the fall of the Howard government: laws were too often passed with inordinate haste and insufficient scrutiny and debate.

Once it gained a majority in the Senate after the 2004 election, the Howard government rode roughshod over parliamentary process. The London bombings of July 2005 saw the government announce a range of contentious measures including control orders and sedition. The bill, introduced into Parliament on November 3, 2005, was accompanied by a statement by the then attorney-general, Philip Ruddock, that "the government would like all elements of the anti-terrorism legislation package to become law before Christmas".

This left little time for Parliament to do its work, let alone for members of the community to consider the changes. After a quick-fire Senate committee inquiry, the legislation passed on December 7, in plenty of time for Christmas.

One consequence of this hasty enactment was immediate recognition that at least one aspect might be flawed. The package included new sedition offences with seven-year jail terms. The offences applied to mere words, and contained inadequate protection of speech such as scientific analysis and comedy. ...

Problems in the making of anti-terrorism laws can, to an extent, be remedied by efficient and effective processes of review. However, Australia's record in this regard is patchy and inconsistent. Even where reviews have been conducted, the level of political commitment to adopting their recommendations has been low. Findings of high-level, expert panels have been ignored or only implemented years later. The common thread of Australia's anti-terrorism laws is that they have been enacted in undue haste and reviewed and repaired some years down the track, or often not at all.

Anti-terrorism laws demand ongoing vigilance. Without this, powers that can be justified only in that extraordinary setting may become accepted as normal and applied elsewhere. An example is the adaption of the control order regime to bikie groups in several Australian states. The South Australian Premier, Mike Rann, justified this by saying: "We're allowing similar legislation to that applying to terrorists, because [bikie groups] are terrorists within our community."

Third, Australia's lack of human rights safeguards can allow laws that too readily undermine democratic freedoms. A central challenge in making anti-terrorism laws is how best to ensure the security of the nation while also respecting the liberty of its people. In democratic nations, the answer is usually grounded in a human rights act or bill of rights.

In contrast, Australia is the only democratic nation without such a check and balance. This leaves key questions about the rights and liberties of the community outside of legal protection and instead subject to the possibility of political compromise and opportunism. These have had a major impact on Australia's anti-terrorism laws.

Australia has gained anti-terrorism laws that undermine democratic freedoms to a greater extent than elsewhere. For example, it would be unthinkable, if not constitutionally impossible, in nations such as the US and Canada to restrict freedom of speech in the manner of Australia's 2005 sedition laws. It also would not be possible to confer a power upon a secret intelligence agency that could be used to detain and question non-suspect citizens.