Dramatic Federal Police raids on the media have sparked alarm over press freedom and the growing powers of Australia’s security state.
The raids are not just an attack on journalists and their sources. They are designed to ensure evidence of war crimes and abuse of state powers remains hidden.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) raid on the ABC was over its “Afghan Files” reports from 2017.
The “Afghan Files” were severely embarrassing to the army’s elite SAS regiment, exposing war crimes in Afghanistan. They revealed evidence Australian soldiers covered up the killing of a 14-year-old boy, as well as concocted a story to justify gunning down Bismillah Azadi and his son Sadiqullah while they slept. SAS soldiers claimed the man pointed a gun at them, yet his relatives insist he was unarmed.
The ABC also published evidence about SAS soldiers mutilating dead bodies, including a notorious incident where they cut off the hands of dead fighters.
These revelations gave an insight into the real nature of the bloody war and occupation of Afghanistan, where the US and Australia claim to be carrying out a humanitarian mission.
News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst had her house searched over a report on discussions between Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo and Defence Department Secretary Greg Moriarty about allowing Australia’s cyber-security agency to spy on Australians’ emails, bank accounts and text messages. This would significantly expand the powers of the agency, set up to monitor foreign signals intelligence.
At the time it was shelved by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. But in the wake of the raids Peter Dutton has revealed the proposal is again under active discussion.
The report showed how security agencies are pushing for ever greater powers to spy on us.
The AFP raids were clearly designed to intimidate journalists and potential whistleblowers.
Federal police spent nine hours going through files at the ABC, coming armed with a ludicrously broad warrant. ABC journalist John Lyons, who live-tweeted the search, commented, “This warrant was so broad that there seemed nothing that the AFP could not seize or take.
“In fact, the warrant even gave the AFP the power to delete ABC documents if they so chose.”
Acting AFP Commissioner Neil Gaughan confirmed that it was possible the ABC journalists could be charged, saying that, “it is an offence to actually have that particular material [the original Defence Department documents] still on websites”. Publishing or receiving “official secrets” is an offence under the Crimes Act with a maximum sentence of seven years’ jail.
Punishments for whistleblowers are even more extreme. David McBride, responsible for the leak of material for the “The Afghan Files”, is facing charges that could mean around 60 years in jail.
Any charges as a result of the two raids will take place under old legislation. But new espionage laws introduced last year increase potential jail time for the leak of classified security information to ten years’ jail. Journalists can also face charges for publishing such material, although a vague “public interest” defence exists.
Both investigations were requested by the Defence Department secretary, not the government itself.
The investigation into the ABC reports was also requested by the chief of the Defence Force, according to the Federal Police.
But the government can’t escape responsibility.
Federal parliament has introduced over 60 new pieces of security legislation since 2001, from preventative detention, to new anti-terrorism offences, citizenship cancellation and control orders.
Australia’s security agencies now have a budget of $2 billion a year and over 7000 staff. ASIO has tripled in size since 2001.
The effort to increase security agencies’ powers has been the work of both major parties. The Labor Party even wrote to the government last year demanding it investigate the leaks behind the raid against Annika Smethurst.
And placing Peter Dutton as minister in charge of these agencies only gives them a further green light to step up their activities.
The security agencies want to amass the broadest possible powers to spy on and investigate anything deemed a threat to “national security”, with as little scrutiny as they can.
ASIO has a history of abusing its powers, spying on thousands of activists, academics, public servants and Labor Party figures over time in an effort to tackle “subversion”. More recently it has harassed and intimidated innocent members of the Muslim community, and in 2005 deported an anti-war activist.
National security agencies are not designed to keep us safe. They are a means of furthering the interests of Australian corporations and the rich through imperialist adventures abroad and repression at home.
The more of their secrets that are exposed the better.
By James Supple