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Wednesday, 19 September 2001
Page: 30935

Mr McARTHUR (9:55 AM) —I am very pleased to be participating in the debate on the Intelligence Services Bill 2001 following my involvement in the deliberations of the Joint Select Committee on the Intelligence Services in its preparation of the advisory report on the Intelligence Services Bill. I commend those speakers who have participated in this debate so far. I acknowledge the cooperation of the member for Kingsford-Smith in his detailed response to the bill and the cooperation of the opposition in ensuring that the final outcome will be that this bill will pass both houses. The member for Kingsford-Smith made the observation, amongst his detailed comments— and I agree with him—about the responsibility of the parliament in relation to the secrecy of operations. I will speak a bit further on these matters later.

The member for Fadden, the chairman of the ASIO committee, made the very interesting observation that during the deliberations of the select committee there was very little interest by the press. That is an unusual situation, given that the press have over the years taken a remarkable amount of interest in matters related to ASIO, ASIS and other covert operations. I particularly commend the member for Banks for his bipartisan spirit. He was particularly active on the committee looking at the bill. I note that he suggests that both sides of the parliament have ownership of the bill dealing with this very sensitive matter. I well recall the member for Banks's particular concern about clause 14. I will allude to that in a minute.

The background to this bill before the parliament is the fundamental dilemma facing Western democracies—and it has been drawn very much to our attention in recent days—of the ability of elected parliaments to control the secret service operations of major Western powers. I think the Howard government and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have now come to a situation of providing a legislative backing for ASIO and ASIS. After a very cooperative approach by all members involved, the parliament now has a reasonable oversight of a secret service operation, a surveillance operation, on behalf of Australians, of those people, be they internal or external agents, who may cause us damage.

I made the comment in the parliament when we were discussing the joint select committee's report, and I will put it on the record again, that the focus of the Intelligence Services Bill is that ASIS was established by executive direction on 13 May 1952. It was not until 1977 that the government publicly acknowledged the existence of ASIS as Australia's foreign intelligence agency. It demonstrates the move that has taken place under the Howard government that ASIS is now under the control and direction of the parliament in terms of some of its policies but not its operations. I make that very clear.

The Samuels and Codd report, which other members have referred to, dealt with the fundamental problem of the ability of the government and the parliament of the day to oversee the operations of ASIS and ASIO. Our report states:

The IS Bill reflects this recommendation by seeking to provide a legislative basis for ASIS which details levels of accountability and oversight, and sets out the functions of ASIS and of the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD).

I will not go into the further detail of that. It raises the fundamental issue that the Australian parliament—unlike some of the other parliaments around the Western world— have compromised, with the help of the opposition and the select committee, to have genuine parliamentary oversight of these operations so that no longer are the press grabbing hold of headline material which really does not constitute the major operations of either ASIS or ASIO.

I particularly note that parliamentary scrutiny of these two organisations is based on parliamentary observation of general policy positions but not of operational day-to-day activities. It is very important that we understand that. The bill limits the immunities that are provided for ASIS and Defence Signals Directorate personnel. Those persons, be they on Australian soil or on foreign territory, have some limited immunities. I draw the attention of the House to the debate that is going on in the USA at the moment after the catastrophe in New York. Last week, I noted in the Australian the headline `CIA incompetence is criminal'. I make no particular judgment about the ability of the CIA in America, but the article points out that the CIA spends $US30 billion each year on the 13 intelligence agencies in the US. The article suggested that they failed `to protect Americans from a handful of lunatics' and `was just the latest in a line of disasters'. The article went on to state:

Yet Mohammed Atta, who piloted one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Centre, was a prime suspect in the 1986 terrorist bombing of a bus in Israel. How does someone like that— none of the hijackers used aliases—get into the US?

That indicates the difficulty that Australian or American agencies have in finding and identifying persons who eventually turn up as terrorists and cause remarkable damage by using small numbers of people. Everyone in this House is aware of the catastrophic outcome of the events in New York. Recent headlines suggest that the CIA should have been more vigilant. I suggest that that is a fairly difficult assignment. Hopefully, here in Australia, ASIS and ASIO, in executing their task under parliamentary direction, will do their best to identify such persons or activities. In the short term at least that will be very difficult for Western nations, because with modern technology individuals can cause havoc, as has been demonstrated in the USA.

The committee, in looking at the relationship between the parliament and the agencies, was particularly concerned with clause 14 and it certainly took a lot of care and consideration to identify people who acted for the agencies in a way that conformed to Australian laws, yet it was able to ensure that those people could execute a successful outcome on behalf of ASIO or ASIS. In my judgment, after the committee discussion and the discussion of the definitions among members opposite, members of the government and professions involved in ASIS and ASIO, a sensible outcome has been reached in identifying persons who would be involved in such activities.

We now have a bill before the parliament and a clearer understanding of the role of ASIS and ASIO. Both organisations will be supervised by a parliamentary committee. That will depend very largely upon trust on the part of the executives of those two organisations in dealing with the parliamentary committee. In the UK and the USA there has been concern about who supervises the operatives, whether members of parliament have that capacity and whether they would receive sufficient trust from intelligence organisations. One witness before our committee suggested that even members of parliament should undertake an ASIO check. That was rejected on the basis that members of this parliament who form the parliamentary committee and who are trusted by ASIO and ASIS executives can play a sensible role.

In my judgment, the role of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, as he has been operating in providing written supervision of the operations of ASIO, has demonstrated a very successful modus operandi. The minister must provide written instructions to operations by ASIO. The inspector-general, on behalf of the committee and the parliament, can provide his observations on whether those instructions are lawful and whether they execute the wishes of the parliament. In my observation, that has been a successful way to solve a very difficult problem. I emphasise the fundamental problem that we face in the parliament: we are asking the parliament, which is an open and democratic institution, to supervise covert organisations, because that is the nature of their activities. After struggling for many years, the Howard government have come up with a solution to provide the necessary balance.

I note that members opposite and members on this side have agreed that there is ownership of this legislation by both sides of the parliament. It augurs well for the attitudes of future governments and for the future operations of ASIO and ASIS that persons involved in those two organisations can have confidence that both sides of the House of Representatives and the Senate have agreed to a set of guidelines and directions in the statute book that will assist the operations of those two organisations into the future without fear of undue interference by the parliament, yet retain accountability to parliament by way of annual reports and informal discussions with the committee from time to time.

It has been in the national interest that, after this interesting and fairly long process following the royal commission, the Codd and Samuels inquiry, and long deliberations in drafting the legislation, we have come to this final position. In a world of terrorism which has been drawn very much to our attention in recent days, when the President of the USA is now suggesting that they will step up efforts to attack terrorists wherever they might be, in any part of the world, this shows a new dimension of terrorist activity and warfare between nations. It is appropriate that, in this particular week, this parliament has agreed to this legislation in a bipartisan manner, that the matters have been debated in full by a joint select committee and that those people with an interest and an understanding of these matters have agreed on the fine print. The legislators have agreed to the details of the bill.

It would be my earnest hope that the element of trust between the parliament and the two operations—ASIS and ASIO—would continue to be the order of the day and that these organisations will continue to execute their tasks. I put on the record the very good outcome of ASIO's activities during the Olympic Games in Sydney where I know and understand that they did their job professionally. The Sydney Olympics went ahead without any incident, and it is a credit to both those organisations that that outcome was achieved without any public fanfare or undue concern by members of this parliament.

I commend the legislation and the spirit in which it has been put to parliament. I hope that it can be a model for other parliaments and other such organisations around the world. At a time when some political leaders around the world are calling for yet more secret service activity and more of an attack on terrorists—which is quite right—the execution of those political statements is somewhat more difficult. I hope that members of ASIS and ASIO feel confident that the supervision by this parliament will be professional and that they will not be hindered in their activities to find the people who will be challenging the security of Australia, both of Australians personally and of Australian institutions. This is landmark legislation and I am delighted to participate in it and support it.