The Surveillance Remit


Even as an international drive against the data merchants is gathering force and voice (see, for instance, those “nature walks” by Germans from Griesheim to the Dagger Complex, stacked with spooks), the Australian side of the Five Eyes spy arrangement is being shored up.  If there is one place in the Western world that has shown conspicuously little administrative and policy reform on the subject of bulk surveillance and whistleblowing, Australia is it.

The whistleblowing reform drive has been tardy at best, retarded at worst.  Edward Snowden is more than a nuisance ‘down under’.  He is a treasonous criminal in need of a good chastisement by State and country.  With individuals such as the Australian Attorney-General, George Brandis, you can see why.

Brandis presents the perfect paradox of reactionary conservatism.  A well versed conservative, as opposed to a rabble rousing reactionary one, is happy to consult the rule book and observe the limits of government intervention.  Habeas corpus is not merely a Latin affection.  Brandis is happy to cut back limits on government intervention and unleash the dogs of the surveillance state.  The hollow language of security is very much central to the project.  If a terrorist threat looms around the corner, even a corner that is ten thousand miles away, it must be worth considering.

Data retention might be the bug bear of the pro-Snowden movement, but it is very much the purring feline of the Brandis portfolio.  Ideas on a new data retention scheme have been floated in and around the cabinet, as much so as to stir trouble and cause genuine concern.  Previous suggestions included making telecommunications companies retain data for up to two years. But the Abbott government tends to be so secretive it stumbles over itself from time to time.  Ministers themselves have no one view about the ideas behind such retention, but the terrorist demon is well and truly stalking the tory mindset.

Brandis’ bugbear is that of returning jihadists who will find the peaceful dullness of Australian life poor to their political digestion.  Espionage and counter-terrorism agencies have been promised $600 million for the cause of fighting “home-grown” terrorism (Sydney Morning Herald, Aug 5), and there is a sense that the authorities are readying themselves for some grand show.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in support, has argued that, “We’ve stopped the illegal boats; we will ensure we stop the jihadis as well.”  This will include the granting of powers to authorities to detain and question those who have fought alongside “terrorists” in other theatres of combat.  In what can only be yet another example of premature, and amateurish adjudication, such directions by the authorities will presume, in advance, that if you do come from such countries as Syria and Iraq, you are bound to be a mad jihadi in search of heavenly deliverance.  For Abbott and Brandis, illegality is everywhere, be it those on the sea who dare venture to Australian land, or those who don weapons and ideology to fight in foreign lands.

Interestingly enough, no mention is made of situations where, for instance, a patriotic Australian Ukrainian, keen on bloodying his experience in the conflict with separatists, will be treated.  That is jihadism under a different banner and ideology, but no less relevant. Don’t ever accuse this government of holistic relevance.

Who, then, is pushing it?  The government has the perfect alibi: data mad officials in the intelligence business who have become bone lazy with bulk surveillance.  But it is by no means clear that the intelligence community is at one mind on this. Time and time again, governments have shown themselves willing to make the demands of intelligence communities the basis for their own myopia and spout of paranoia.  If it means netting votes, slanted information and misguided premises can prove invaluable allies.

The report by the joint parliamentary committee on intelligence and security (JPCIS), titled “Potential Reforms of Australia’s National Security Legislation” does push for an enlargement of powers.  But its members have told such publications as The Saturday Paper (Jul 5) that its recommended changes were not designed with the exclusive aim of targeting home bound jihadists.[1]  Other threats also featured, including those posed by the ever expanding capabilities of Chinese hackers. But as this government knows all too well, complex narratives are their greatest enemy.

Brandis’ proposed laws make it clear that the whistleblower, and anyone with information relating to “special intelligence operations”, will be punished for anywhere up to five years.  This sort of material is buried in the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014.[2] A closer reading of some of the sections such as the communication of information “acquired or prepared by or on behalf of ONA [Office of National Assessments]” to inappropriate channels comes in at a hefty 10 years. The laws, in their present draft form, also target the making, removal or retention of records of such information across a range of agencies. Speak about it, and be damned.

Even as some countries, however torturously, attempt to move towards reining in their intelligence services and bringing them within the legal family, the Australian spy and security services are being increasingly placed outside it. This may, in part, be intended to make Australia “fool proof” against the challenges posed by legal advocates, while making it attractive as an espionage outsourcer for Washington.  No gaps, no chances, which is exactly the mindset of any tyrant keen to make good his word.  All the way with the set US president of the day remains holy, and nigh immutable writ for the Canberra establishment.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Jennifer Loewenstein
Heading Toward a Collision: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Regional Proxy Wars
John Pilger
Wikileaks vs. the Empire: the Revolutionary Act of Telling the Truth
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria
Gary Leupp
A Useful Prep-Sheet on Syria for Media Propagandists
Jeffrey St. Clair
Pesticides, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Acceptable Death
Joshua Frank
The Need to Oppose All Foreign Intervention in Syria
Lawrence Ware – Paul Buhle
Insurrectional Black Power: CLR James on Race and Class
Oliver Tickell
Jeremy Corbyn’s Heroic Refusal to be a Nuclear Mass Murderer
Helen Yaffe
Che’s Economist: Remembering Jorge Risquet
Mark Hand
‘Rape Rooms’: How West Virginia Women Paid Off Coal Company Debts
Yves Engler
War Crimes in the Dark: Inside Canada’s Special Forces
Arno J. Mayer
Israel: the Wages of Hubris and Violence
W. T. Whitney
Cuban Government Describes Devastating Effects of U. S. Economic Blockade
Brian Cloughley
The US-NATO Alliance Destroyed Libya, Where Next?
Barry Lando
Syria: Obama’s Bay of Pigs?
Karl Grossman
The Politics of Lyme Disease
Andre Vltchek
Southeast Asia “Forgets” About Western Terror
Jose Martinez
American Violence: Umpqua is “Routine”?
Vijay Prashad
Russian Gambit, Syrian Dilemma
Sam Smith
Why the Democrats are in Such a Mess
Uri Avnery
Nasser and Me
Andrew Levine
The Saints March In: The Donald and the Pope
Arun Gupta
The Refugee Crisis in America
Michael Welton
Junior Partner of Empire: Why Canada’s Foreign Policy Isn’t What You Think
Lara Santoro
Terror as Method: a Journalist’s Search for Truth in Rwanda
Robert Fantina
The U.S. Elections and Verbal Vomit
Dan Glazebrook
Refugees Don’t Cause Fascism, Mr. Timmermann – You Do
Victor Grossman
Blood Moon Over Germany
Patrick Bond
Can World’s Worst Case of Inequality be Fixed by Pikettian Posturing?
Pete Dolack
Earning a Profit from Global Warming
B. R. Gowani
Was Gandhi Averse to Climax? A Psycho-Sexual Assessment of the Mahatma
Tom H. Hastings
Another Mass Murder
Anne Petermann
Activists Arrested at ArborGen GE Trees World Headquarters
Ben Debney
Zombies on a Runaway Train
Franklin Lamb
Confronting ‘Looting to Order’ and ‘Cultural Racketeering’ in Syria
Carl Finamore
Coming to San Francisco? Cra$h at My Pad
Ron Jacobs
Standing Naked: Bob Dylan and Jesus
Missy Comley Beattie
What Might Does To Right
Robert J. Burrowes
Gandhi Jayanti, Gandhi’s Dream
Raouf Halaby
A Week of Juxtapositions
Louis Proyect
Scenes from the Class Struggle in Iran
Christopher Washburn
Skeptik’s Lexicon
Charles R. Larson
Indonesia: Robbed, Raped, Abused
David Yearsley
Death Songs