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Who's watching the watchers? Parliamentary oversight necessary as intelligence services size and power grows

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WHO'S WATCHING THE WATCHERS? Parliamentary oversight necessary as intelligence services size and power grows Centre Alliance plans to amend Australia’s national security laws this week to extend parliamentary scrutiny to the operations of Australia’s national security and intelligence agencies.

Senator Rex Patrick said it was “imperative” to improve parliamentary oversight of Australia’s intelligence agencies as they face greater challenges and are given more resources and power to intrude into the lives of Australian citizens.

“Australia’s ten national security and intelligence agencies employ more than 7,000 people and spend well over $2 billion each year while they accumulate massive amounts of data at home and abroad,” said Rex. “Greater parliamentary scrutiny is long overdue.”

“Recent reports of the desire of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and his Departmental Secretary Mike Pezzullo to expand government access to the communications and electronic records of Australian citizens highlight the need for Parliament to maintain a very careful watch not only over the administration and expenditure of our intelligence agencies, but intelligence policy and operations as well."

At present the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) is prohibited by the Intelligence Services Act 2001 from reviewing intelligence-gathering priorities and operations of Australian intelligence agencies, or the assessments and reports they produce. The Committee is barred by legislation from examining sources of information, operational activities and methods, or any operations that have been, are being or are proposed to be undertaken by intelligence and national security agencies.

Significantly, the PJCIS is also prohibited from reviewing the privacy rules made by Ministers that regulate the communication and retention by agencies of intelligence information concerning Australian persons.

“The PJCIS can’t properly hold these agencies accountable if the Parliament continues to ban its own Committee from reviewing their operational performance,” said Rex.

This is not the approach taken in other countries, including Australia's closest intelligence partners. In the United States, high-powered congressional committees have the authority to reach far into operational matters. Those inquiries are accepted by the US intelligence community as necessary and appropriate.

The approach taken with the new Canadian National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians provides a good model for Australia to follow. The Canadian committee is able to initiate its own inquiries into any matter relating to Canada’s intelligence agencies, subject to a Ministerial veto on scrutiny of ongoing operations where such scrutiny would damage national security.

There are details of intelligence operations involving sensitive and vulnerable sources that are best held by the smallest number of people with an absolute need to know, but Australia’s independent Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security can act, if needed, as an umpire between the Minister responsible for intelligence agencies and the PJCIS.

No publication date: received by Parl Library 07/05/18

“If democratically elected MPs and senators cannot be trusted to deal directly with these questions, then something is wrong with the relationship between the intelligence community and the parliament that it ultimately means to serve”, said Rex.

Centre Alliance will accordingly seek to amend the Intelligence Services Act 2001 to extend the powers of the PJCIS to review intelligence agency operations.

“The Senate is scheduled to debate a number of bills relating to Australia’s intelligence agencies, espionage and secrecy laws as well as measures to deal with covert foreign interference in Australian politics. As the Government seeks to further expand the powers of the intelligence community, equal consideration must be given to extending parliamentary oversight of those agencies," said Rex.

Centre Alliance has no members on the PJCIS.

Centre Alliance strongly supports Australia’s intelligence services, but notes that their operations have not been without major failures and controversies - from ASIS involvement with the CIA supporting a Chilean coup, to the alleged spying on East Timor during oil negotiations while failing to prioritise terrorist threats in Indonesia, and the alleged theft by Chinese spies of classified blueprints for the new ASIO headquarters and a long failure to address covert foreign political interference in Australia.

"Australia's intelligence community agencies are far from infallible", said Rex. "In the future their performance will be tested in a much more demanding security environment and the Australian Parliament will need to subject our intelligence agencies to much closer scrutiny than has been the case previously."

Centre Alliance's proposed amendments to the Intelligence Services Act 2001 can be found here.

For media inquiries contact Chloe Preston on 0419 117 464

No publication date: received by Parl Library 07/05/18