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Spy chief to detail new legal powers

19 August 2001

By Brendan Nicholson, Political Correspondent

The head of the Australian agency that gathers intelligence overseas has been recalled by a parliamentary committee to explain how it would prevent agents abusing new powers to operate within Australia with immunity from prosecution for certain crimes.

Australian Secret Intelligence Service director-general Allan Taylor will appear before the Joint Select Committee on the Intelligence Services tomorrow night to give more detailed answers to questions he was asked a fortnight ago about how the Intelligence Services Bill would work.

The bill is intended to provide a legal framework for ASIS and a second agency, the Defence Signals Directorate, to carry out operations within Australia as part of investigations under way or being planned overseas.

ASIS or DSD agents would, under certain circumstances, be immune from prosecution if they broke laws by, for instance, hacking into a suspect's computer. This immunity would not extend to crimes of violence.

During hearings that began on July 31, ASIS and DSD executives were asked to give a clearer idea of the sort of activities their agents might be involved in with immunity from prosecution.

ASIS undertook to give the committee this information in writing.

The Sunday Age believes committee members were not happy with the information that was provided and asked that Mr Taylor be recalled.

Civil liberties groups have warned that legislation putting such organisations beyond the law, even in limited circumstances, could easily be misused. A government might, for instance, be tempted to have ASIS carry out in secret an operation of which its domestic counterpart, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, would have to reveal details to a parliamentary committee overseeing its operations.

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Laurie Brereton said Labor was strongly committed to putting ASIS and the DSD on a statutory basis.

Last month's committee hearings had not resolved some concerns about the bill that the government planned to introduce to parliament soon, he said.

These included the scope of ASIS and DSD intelligence-gathering operations directed at Australian citizens overseas and the wide-ranging immunities contained in the legislation to be introduced by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

"The legislation involves significant national interest considerations and very important civil liberties issues and it's very important that it be subjected to full parliamentary debate," Mr Brereton said.

Copyright Sunday Age 2001

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