There was no concerted campaign, no unified push by the media to stop this bill, which dramatically expands the powers of intelligence agencies while creating new offences for disclosing information about their operations
By Paul Farrell
Journalists will be jailed. It might take a year, or two, or even longer. But journalists and whistleblowers will face prison as a result of the first tranche of national security legislation that was passed in the Senate late on Thursday.
And they laughed as they did it. As the Coalition, Labor and the Palmer United party voted in favour of this bill, which dramatically expands the powers of intelligence agencies while creating new offences for disclosing information about the operations they will undertake with these new powers, there was a jovial air in the chamber.
It’s a bill that makes many broad changes to our intelligence gathering apparatus. It introduces a class of “special intelligence operation” for Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio) missions where intelligence officers can gain immunity from using force or committing other offences.
Reporting of these operations, which could foreseeably lead to situations where a public disclosure would be in the public interest, could land journalists and whistleblowers in jail. And not just journalists, but any person who shares or republishes this material. In addition, harsher penalties are put in place for intelligence whistleblowers who take documents or records and disclose them, partly as a response to the disclosures made by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
So how would these laws work? We have many examples of intelligence reporting that could be caught within the scope of such an offence. Say, for instance, the bugging of East Timorese leaders during their negotiations with Australians were to happen today. If it were declared a ‘special intelligence operation’ – a process which only involves approval from the attorney general – reporting of the fact this bugging occurred, the details around it, the nature of the surveillance, could be caught within the scope of this offence. The same could equally apply for reporting the Indonesian president’s phone was targeted by Australian intelligence agencies, if it were declared a special operation.
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