The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Legislation (Terrorism) Amendment Act 2003 (Cth) is the most controversial piece of anti-terrorism legislation passed by the Commonwealth Parliament. The Act created a system of warrants that permit the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to question and detain non-suspects for the purposes of gathering intelligence about terrorism offences. This regime is subject to a sunset clause and will expire in July 2016, unless renewed by Parliament. This article provides a comprehensive overview of the process by which warrants are issued and the powers conferred by them. It finds that the regime is insufficiently tailored to its purpose of protecting Australians against terrorism. In light of this, and evidence about how the powers have been used, the article concludes that these extraordinary questioning and detention powers should not be renewed without significant amendment.The authors conclude -
The coercive questioning and detention powers conferred on ASIO by the Special Powers Regime are extraordinary. There is no precedent for such powers either in Australia or in other like nations. In 2003, after protracted debate, the Commonwealth Parliament concluded that these powers were necessary to protect Australia against the threat of terrorism. The Regime was accepted as an exceptional measure, and the inclusion of a sunset clause demonstrates that parliamentarians believed that it would be temporary. Ten years on, the Special Powers Regime can no longer fall back on these justifications. Today, a different question must be asked — whether there is a basis for the Special Powers Regime becoming a permanent feature of Australia’s legal landscape. This article has sought to answer this question by examining the legislative framework, in particular, the issuing criteria and the nature of the powers, as well as the actual use made of the powers.
The most extraordinary aspect of the Special Powers Regime is the power of detention. By this, we mean both the power to issue a Detention Warrant and also the power for a Prescribed Authority to direct the detention of a person subject to a Questioning Warrant. This power challenges the general rule that Australians should only be detained as a result of a finding of criminal guilt by a judicial officer. For this reason, the power should not be accepted unless there is clear evidence that it is necessary to protect the community from terrorism. It is not enough to say that ASIO will exercise restraint and only request a Detention Warrant if it believes that the circumstances necessitate it. The rule of law requires that legislation tightly constrain executive discretion. However, nowhere in the ASIO Act does it require the Issuing Authority to be satisfied that issuing a Detention Warrant is necessary to protect the community. At the very least, the issuing criteria should be amended to include such a requirement. This, together with the existing additional detention criterion, should be exposed to the scrutiny of the Issuing Authority, rather than left to the judgement of the Attorney-General alone.
However, practical considerations suggest that the detention power should be repealed rather than merely amended. Since 2002, 16 Questioning Warrants have been issued. In none of these cases was it regarded as necessary for a person to be detained. This suggests that other provisions of the ASIO Act, such as the secrecy offences, are sufficient to prevent a person from, for example, alerting another person involved in a terrorist act to an ongoing investigation. Further, 37 people have been charged with terrorism offences since 2003. The fact that no Detention Warrant has been issued in respect of any of these people suggests that the detention power is not necessary for terrorism investigations or prosecutions. If this is the case, then there is no need to renew the detention power again in 2016.
The statistics also indicate problems with the Questioning Warrants regime. A statistical breakdown of the 16 Questioning Warrants indicates that there is no correlation between the issue of such warrants and terrorism prosecutions. If Questioning Warrants are not intended to aid prosecutions, what function are they intended to serve? The answer to this is, ostensibly, to enable ASIO to gather intelligence necessary to protect Australia against the threat of terrorism. However, at no point are either the Attorney-General or the Issuing Authority asked to consider whether the questioning of an individual is actually necessary to achieve this end. We do not argue in this article that Questioning Warrants should be repealed, though certainly there is a good case that can be put to that effect. At the very least, the criteria for issuing a Questioning Warrant should be amended to require that questioning a person will substantially assist with the collection of intelligence that is reasonably believed capable of preventing a terrorism offence or enabling the prosecution of an offence. This, and the existing criterion that a Questioning Warrant may only be issued if other methods of intelligence gathering would be inadequate, should also be exposed to the scrutiny of the Issuing Authority.
The issue of repeat Questioning Warrants also poses a very real problem, albeit one that has seldom materialised. In our opinion, the criteria for such a warrant should be modified such that they establish a significantly higher threshold than for the issue of a Questioning Warrant in the first place. This would go some way towards reducing the possibility of ASIO using repeat warrants as means of harassment.
The punitive impact of the coercive questioning regime is exacerbated by restrictions on the procedural safeguards provided to a person subject to a warrant. First, the ASIO Act empowers a Prescribed Authority to restrict a person’s access to a lawyer of his or her choice. Other provisions, such as that allowing ASIO to monitor communications between a lawyer and his or her client, undermine the efficacy of legal representation and advice. Secondly, there is a blanket prohibition on disclosure of information about a warrant — including even the fact that a warrant has been issued. The presumption underlying these restrictions is that any communications by a person subject to a warrant — whether to a lawyer or someone else — are potentially dangerous. At times, this means the onus is effectively shifted to the person subject to the warrant to prove that communications do not pose a risk to national security; at other times, the presumption is not rebuttable.
There may well be situations in which such restrictions are appropriate. However, these are likely to be the exception rather than the norm and the restrictions should be narrowed to reflect this. Otherwise, the restrictions are disproportionate and unnecessarily hinder access to legal representation and advice. There should, for example, be a requirement of exceptional circumstances before the right to a lawyer of one’s choice is restricted. The same rule should apply to the monitoring of communications between the subject of the warrant and his or her lawyer. The secrecy provisions which restrict disclosure of information about a warrant should be amended for similar reasons. Communications between the subject of a warrant and his or her family, friends, employers or medical professionals should only be restricted where there is evidence to conclude that disclosure may pose a risk to national security. As they stand, these restrictions are disproportionate to the Regime’s purposes and mean that the use of the powers is shrouded in an undue degree of secrecy.
The question of whether — and to what extent — individual rights and freedoms can be restricted in times of emergency is one of the most challenging to have faced Western democracies. An even more difficult question faces us today. A decade on from the September 11 terrorist attacks, this state of emergency has become the norm; there is no end in sight for the ‘war on terror’. Therefore, Australia must start considering and answering the question of what its anti-terrorism laws should look like for the long term. Is it prepared to accept the ASIO Special Powers Regime as an ‘ordinary’ part of the legal framework? The Regime makes substantial inroads into fundamental human rights. Intelligence agencies are given unprecedented powers to detain non-suspects. These powers might be acceptable if they were required to protect Australia from a terrorist act. However, as this article has demonstrated, they have rarely been used and the need for them over the longer term has not been made out.