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Sydney: transcript of press conference regarding measures to strengthen Australia's counter-terrorism capabilities.

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Subject: Transcript - Tuesday, 18 December 2001


DARYL WILLIAMS: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I'd like to announce now that Cabinet has today endorsed recommendations proposing measures to strengthen Australia's counter-terrorism capabilities.

These recommendations arise out of a high-level review chaired by the Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department and a review that was instigated after September 11th.

While there is no known specific threat of terrorism in Australia, the Cabinet has endorsed a raft of measures to enhance our ability to meet the challenges of the new terrorist environment. Cabinet has agreed to new counter-terrorism legislation, to enhanced Commonwealth powers in relation to it, and to a consolidation and strengthening of Commonwealth agencies that deal with counter-terrorism. Cabinet will consider additional measures in the new year.

The leaders' summit announced by the Prime Minister during the election to consider transnational crime and terrorism will consider proposals for a new national framework for dealing with those subjects.

Some of the proposals affect state and territory powers and responsibilities and the Commonwealth's position in relation to this will be further considered also in the new year.

We're looking to the Labor Party to get behind us on all of these proposals and we need the cooperation of the states and territories in relation to some of them.

While we are looking at security, let me just mention another subject. Australians travelling at Christmas can fly on airlines confident that aviation security has been strengthened. Claims by the Miscellaneous Workers' Union that security has not been sufficiently strengthened are ill-informed and irresponsible and the criticisms made by other unions of the aviation's community officers' proposals are rejected.

Since the terrorist incidents in the United States, the Government has taken a wide range of measures to enhance the safety and security of all Australians. Security at all major airports has been strengthened, including the upgrading of the screening of passengers and luggage, and a policy of randomly placing highly trained and armed security officers on flights is currently being implemented.

Officers are being fully trained and the first group of 22 are expected to graduate on Thursday this week, so the Government will be in a position to implement its policy in the very near future.

Does anybody have any questions?

QUESTION: Can you outline specifically what these enhanced powers are going to be operating for?

DARYL WILLIAMS: The particular powers that have been a focus of some media attention in the past relate to ASIO. ASIO will be given the power to question people who may have information about terrorism, who may be suspected of being involved in terrorist activity, or who may not be suspected of being involved themselves.

There would be a range of ways of dealing with these people, but one proposal that would be covered by the legislation is ASIO would have, with the assistance of police, the capacity to detain a person up to 48 hours under conditions set out in a warrant.

A warrant would be sought by the Director-General of Security, it would require the approval of the Attorney-General and would have to be approved by a federal magistrate or a member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal with legal qualifications.

The conditions of detention and interrogation would be determined in the warrant application.

QUESTION: These powers are very extensive. Can the public be assured they won't be abused?

DARYL WILLIAMS: I think there is a number of safeguards in relation to those powers. My expectation is that they would only be used in very serious cases where there is a very serious threat to life or property and there is a reasonable suspicion that a person may be able to assist by providing information that would hinder or prevent the activity occurring.

Now, the safeguards are numerous. The Director-General of Security personally signs the warrant. It has to be approved by a Minister, namely the Attorney-General, and it has to be approved by an independent judicial officer, either a federal magistrate or legal member of the Administrative Affairs Tribunal.

In addition, the warrant would have to be notified to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security who would have the capacity to observe everything that goes on and would have the capacity to report to Parliament.

In addition, the Intelligence Services Parliamentary Committee would be able to review and report on any actions exercising those powers.

QUESTION: Could the period of containment be extended beyond 48 hours?

DARYL WILLIAMS: There will be some detail in relation to that but it's not contemplated that a person who is not arrested would be detained beyond 48 hours, and different provisions would apply in relation to a person who is arrested and there may be an extension of time in relation to arrest where a charge is contemplated.

QUESTION: When will the marshals be in the sky and what will they be armed with?

DARYL WILLIAMS: The sky marshals, or the aviation security officers as they're called, will be trained and available from the end of this week. When and where they will be deployed is still being the subject of discussions with the airlines. But it's not intended that there will be any public notification of when or where they will be deployed.

They'll be randomly placed and you won't be able to tell by looking at a person that yes, this is a security officer. They will look like an ordinary member of the public.

QUESTION: What will they be armed with?

DARYL WILLIAMS: They'll be armed with a firearm that would have the capacity to do its job without damaging the fuselage of the aircraft.

QUESTION: Like a stun gun?

DARYL WILLIAMS: I can't give you the detail on that. I wouldn't describe it as a stun gun though.

QUESTION: In the event of a terrorist threat, how would the air marshal react?

DARYL WILLIAMS: That's been the subject of extensive training. We've had the assistance of the air marshal's division of the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States. They'll be properly trained.

QUESTION: And if there's more than one terrorist?

DARYL WILLIAMS: Well, they're properly trained, that's all I can - I can't comment on individual scenarios.

QUESTION: Mr Williams, yesterday there was a breach of security at Lucas Heights. Would that be an example of how you'd take somebody into custody under this new legislation?

DARYL WILLIAMS: No, that's nothing to do with it.

QUESTION: Have you got any comments? For example, yesterday they did get in. Somebody theoretically could have been posing as a Greenpeace activist and got in. Are you concerned about that?

DARYL WILLIAMS: It's a matter of concern that there is a breach of security, particularly in relation to a facility like Lucas Heights.

However, we accept that people should be free to express their opinions and their concerns but they should not be doing it in any way that interferes with the rights of others, does any property damage or prevents people going about their daily work. And in that respect, what happened at Lucas Heights was an inappropriate way of expressing a concern.

QUESTION: They also did prove that they could get in and perhaps that security was lax in Australia's only nuclear facility.

DARYL WILLIAMS: I'm sure security is being reviewed in the light of the events of yesterday.

QUESTION: How do you describe the suggestions that ASIO with these new powers is becoming a secret police.

DARYL WILLIAMS: No, ASIO's definitely not becoming a secret police. ASIO is an intelligence agency that operates under a statute that has been very carefully negotiated through the Parliament. So everything it does has been approved in advance by the Parliament.

It is also subject to scrutiny by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security who does a very thorough audit of all the activities of ASIO and can report through the Prime Minister to the Parliament.

QUESTION: Are you not blurring that line between security analysis and policing with ASIO?

DARYL WILLIAMS: Well, not really. The detention and arrest of people would not be carried out by ASIO itself; it would be carried out by police, either the Federal Police or the relevant state or territory police. And the only role that ASIO would really have in relation to that is to determine the person who is to be interrogated and then to conduct the interrogation. It would be done under conditions settled by the Director-General, by the Minister and by a judicial officer.

QUESTION: How do you respond to the concerns of the Police Federation saying the air marshals should have come from the ranks of the police rather than the Australian Protective Service?

DARYL WILLIAMS: The Australian Protective Service people who have been trained were carefully selected. They've undergone an appropriate training. Now, if police wish to apply for jobs with the Australian Protective Service to do this job, they're at liberty to do it. But it's not necessary that everybody who conduct that have the additional training that a policeman has. This is a specialist service.

QUESTION: There have been suggestions by the Government in the past that terrorists, or suspected terrorists, were maybe coming in posing as asylum seekers. Do you anticipate using this legislation to detain asylum seekers, or even inside Australian detention centres?

DARYL WILLIAMS: Let me say at the outset, I wouldn't exclude any category of person from being a person who, in appropriate circumstances, may be able to assist in preventing terrorist activity occurring.

Now, the Minister for Immigration has, on many occasions, explained that in processing asylum seekers, one of the issues that is assessed is any security risk that's already undertaken. Now, if he had any concern that there was going to be an attempt by an asylum seeker to engage in terrorist activity, that would be passed on and would be dealt with in the appropriate way.

But I would be very surprised if the appropriate way, in the ordinary circumstances, involved a requirement of detention and interrogation using the special powers.

QUESTION: Why are these new measures being announced now? Has there been anything that's happened, security threats since October?

DARYL WILLIAMS: As I said earlier, there is no specific security threat known to the authorities. The announcement is made now because after having dealt with some of the issues during the election and having dealt with them through the National Security Committee previously, they have now been endorsed by Cabinet today.

QUESTION: Will you beef up ASIO's budget, and if so, by how much?

DARYL WILLIAMS: That's a matter that is on the table. It has to be considered in the budget context.

QUESTION: How much are you looking at?

DARYL WILLIAMS: I can't answer that.

QUESTION: Why do you want to read unread e-mails, and how will that work?

DARYL WILLIAMS: This is just a small point in relation to telecommunications interception. We have the capacity to intercept telephone exchanges and other telecommunications, including inspecting computers and recorded messages. But there is, I am advised, a small gap in the legislation that does not properly, or doubtfully authorises the reading of unread e-mails. It's only a small drafting issue.

QUESTION: Can you shed some light on the suggestion of a second Australian fighting for the Taliban?

DARYL WILLIAMS: I understand this has been the subject of some speculation. As I am presently advised, we're not aware of any second person having been captured by Coalition forces, as has been reported. And otherwise we're unable to confirm that there is a person in that category.

I notice Mr Downer this morning has made some mention of a report from a family concerned about the welfare of a relative. Now, you have to ask him about that. I can't comment on that.

QUESTION: What efforts are being made then to establish whether or not there is indeed a second Australian?

DARYL WILLIAMS: I'm sure both the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have actions in train in that respect.

QUESTION: Are you able to say the family you mentioned?

DARYL WILLIAMS: I have not been briefed on the subject.

QUESTION: Is Australia any closer to getting access to David Hicks?

DARYL WILLIAMS: Now that he's in the hands of United States authorities and on a United States ship, we expect that access would be much more easily obtained than it would have been if he'd continued in the hands of the Northern Alliance.

We're currently working towards getting him in a position where representatives of the Australian Federal Police and ASIO can interrogate him.

QUESTION: Would these measures make it easier to charge him? There seems to be some debate about whether there is anything he can be charged with.

DARYL WILLIAMS: Nobody's going to reach any conclusion about whether or not he can be charged until we have more information about what he's done. There's limited information available and I'm not proposing to comment. But the possibility of him being charged with offences under Australian law is certainly under consideration.

QUESTION: At the weekend, Chris Puplick, the State Privacy Commissioner, expressed concern that any counter-terrorism measures would necessarily impinge on privacy rights. Do you agree with him, and what impact will these measures have on the rights of privacy of individuals?

DARYL WILLIAMS: The exercise of protecting privacy is an important one, and I respect the role that Mr Puplick plays in relation to that. I also have portfolio responsibility for privacy protection at the Commonwealth level.

Now, what we seek to do is to balance the interests of keeping personal information private - that's something that most people in the community strongly desire - with the other public interest of ensuring that people can go about their lives safe and secure from malicious acts by others, in particular terrorists.

The balancing process that we've undergone in working out the ASIO powers, I believe is a fair one and I believe that the public will strongly support it. As I said, I hope the Labor Party will get behind it as well.

QUESTION: These powers, is there a sunset clause?

DARYL WILLIAMS: It's not proposed there be a sunset clause on them.

QUESTION: At Woomera, why was the ACM staff unable to control the latest riot?

DARYL WILLIAMS: You're going to get your information that I can provide from the Department. But what I'm advised is that there were a couple of demonstrations, one in the afternoon and one in the evening starting fairly late.

Now, initially they were peaceful and I'm told that people were simply protesting and shouting, "Visa, visa, visa."

Now, it then developed into what seems to be wanton acts of destruction where the detainees engaged in a deliberate criminal campaign of setting fire to buildings and damaging them. This went on for quite some time and in fact the safety of the facility officers who were there was at risk. They were withdrawn. The fire engines then put the fire out and some order was restored.

Now, it's apparent that the damage level is very high, I'm advised, running into hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's also pretty evident that since nobody really sought to break out that this was a deliberate campaign with the objective of forcing the authorities to grant people visas.

Now, the people who engaged in this activity will be the subject of police investigation; both the Federal Police and the South Australian police are investigating. But they are sadly mistaken if they believe that by engaging in actions like this they're going to improve their chances of obtaining a visa.

QUESTION: Shouldn't staff there be able to control the detainees rather than withdraw? Shouldn't they be able to stop things getting out of hand?

DARYL WILLIAMS: Desirably, everything will go perfectly at all times. In this occasion, things didn't go perfectly.

There has been, in fact I'm told, some seven fire-related incidents since the 20th November and it has cost the Commonwealth a lot of money.

QUESTION: Why is it that there's so many problems with Woomera rather than other detention centres?

DARYL WILLIAMS: I can't offer an explanation on that. You might have to speak to Mr Ruddock when he comes back.

QUESTION: Do you not think that perhaps the policy is not working, that you treat them like animals and they will behave like animals?

DARYL WILLIAMS: The people who come here seeking to do something that's unlawful by our law, they are given the benefit of processing under the Refugee Convention. If they fail to qualify under that, they are the subject of detention. That's the policy the Government intends to continue.

QUESTION: (Inaudible)...put in detention afterwards.

DARYL WILLIAMS: They arrive here unlawfully. Let's leave it there. You can ask Mr Ruddock any further questions about that.

QUESTION: How many people were actually involved in the incident?

DARYL WILLIAMS: I don't have the number, sorry.

Okay, thanks very much.

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