An Australian intelligence agent said it needed expanded strength to question foreign spies and their aides, because there were currently more operating in the country than at the height of the Cold War.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (Asio) has also defended proposals to gain the strength to question children as young as 14 years old on terrorism issues, saying the agency has significant concerns about the trend of radicalized Australians increasingly early in life.
A The bill was introduced to parliament this month will expand the existing Asio power to get people questioned compulsorily – which has been used 16 times since 2003 but only for intelligence gathering related to terrorism.
The bill will remove more disturbing detention forces that allow a person to be detained for up to seven days for interrogation for up to 24 hours during that time – a very controversial act which according to Asio has never been actually used.
At the same time, however, the scope of the interrogation force must be extended beyond terrorism to include espionage and foreign intervention along with politically motivated violence.
This bill will allow the attorney general to approve a direct examination warrant without the involvement of judges – easing the obstacles faced by institutions in the current law.
“The threat posed today by espionage and foreign interference operates on a scale, breadth and ambition never before seen in Australia,” Asio said in a submission to a joint parliamentary committee on intelligence and security, which is reviewing proposed laws .
“Foreign espionage and interference have affected parts of the Australian community that were previously untouched by such threats, even during the Cold War.
“There are more foreign intelligence officers and their proxies operating in Australia now than at the height of the Cold War, and many of them have the necessary level of ability, intent and persistence to cause significant damage to our national security.”
Submission is built on Asio’s latest warning about increasing threats foreign interference. The Interior Minister, Peter Dutton, said earlier this year that the countries included China, Iran and Russia.
Dennis Richardson, former defense department and head of Asio, had also previously been warned China is “very active in intelligence activities aimed at resisting us” including in cyberspace but also maintaining “monitoring within the Chinese Chinese community” and spreading other soft levers.
According to the new submission – which did not name a particular country – Asio’s investigation has found foreign intervention operations directed at government and industry figures, the media, members of the diaspora community and commercial investment decision makers.
Australia’s military modernization program is one of the “attractive targets for espionage by foreign countries seeking to benefit at the expense of Australia’s security and prosperity”.
Asio said it also saw foreign countries “trying to monitor and control the activities, opinions and decisions of parts of the Australian community in ways that had an impact on freedom of speech, association and action”.
It is understood that Asio regards the power of mandatory questions as “another tool in our toolbox” for targeting espionage and foreign interference.
Although it is often necessary to cover up the activity in disguise, he said there might also be a need to disrupt the activity and seek information through direct questions. Australia wants to gain an understanding of the damage that has occurred, including what has been given to foreign enemies and the potential effects that flow.
It is believed that in some cases the security services might not mind if the examination of a spy suspected of encouraging the country involved to quickly extract the person from Australia, because disturbing the threat might be the main goal of Asians. But the law will give authorities the ability to collect passports and travel documents if needed.
While people will not be “detained” like that, the bill will allow that person to be searched for security reasons and to ensure they do not destroy evidence or tip people. If they escape, they will commit violations and the police can be called.
Asio has indicated that the extended questioning power could also be useful in overcoming the growing threat by neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists.
It is understood that there is some discussion within the agency which has the potential to expand the power of mandatory questions to all Asian security responsibilities – which also includes sabotage, actions that promote communal violence, and serious threats to the Australian border. However, decisions are made to limit the range of threats that can cause significant damage: espionage and acts of foreign interference and politically motivated violence including terrorism.
In its submission, Asio said the terrorist threat remained very high, with three anti-terrorism disturbances in the past year: two cases motivated by Islamic extremism, and one by extreme right-wing ideology.
Since May 2015, it was said, one terrorist attack – the murder of NSW police officer Curtis Cheng by a 15-year-old shooter – and three disturbed plots had involved teenagers under the age of 18. Asio is worried “that young people who are vulnerable and easily influenced by people will continue to risk being trapped in the stream of hatred spread on the internet by extremists from every ideology”.
The agency argues that they did not ask for a “fishing license” to question minors. In those cases, the attorney general must be satisfied that the person has a direct threat to carry out politically motivated violence – not because they only know other people who are planning the attack. The Attorney General must also consider the child’s best interests.
The bill will also allow Asio to use tracking devices with internal authorization under certain circumstances, rather than requiring a warrant. Given the trend towards single actors or small groups that use weapons that are easily available, Asio believes the surveillance team needs flexibility to move quickly.
Critics say the bill is a further expansion of the national security force. Dean of law at the University of New South Wales, George Williams, debate aspects of the bill – including the ability to question 14-year-old children – “problematic” and “outreach” cases.
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