Power to question 14-year-olds necessary to confront threats, ASIO says

ASIO director-general Mike Burgess. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
ASIO director-general Mike Burgess. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

A terror attack committed by a 15-year-old, three disrupted plots involving minors and an investigation into radicalised teenagers that wasn't able to proceed show new powers sought by Australia's domestic spy agency are needed, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has argued.

The government is seeking to expand the powers available to Australia's domestic spy agency, including lowering the minimum age for using compulsory questioning powers on a person suspected of planning a terror attack to 14.

Compulsory questioning powers would also be expanded for use not only against terror suspects, but also for investigations into espionage and foreign interference.

Since 2003, the agency has had the ability to detain a terror suspect for up to seven days for questioning over suspected terror attacks, but the powerful parliamentary Intelligence and Security committee recommended the powers be repealed in 2018. The detention powers, which have never been used, would be removed under the proposed changes, with the agency believing the expanded compulsory questioning powers will be more appropriate.

Since the legislation was first made public this month, there have been questions raised over the new powers, particularly surrounding the questioning of minors and a new proposed ability to internally authorise the use of tracking devices without external approval for a warrant.

But the agency argues that the security threat facing Australia makes the new legislation necessary, and the safeguards contained within it mean the powers will be used appropriately.

Director-General of Security Mike Burgess described the threat level facing Australia as "unprecedented" in an address earlier this year, revealing there are currently more foreign spies and their agents operating in Australia than during the Cold War. He also named neo-Nazi groups as a rising, organised and capable threat.

ASIO's submission said that while Sunni Islamist extremism remained the principal source of the terror threat, the likelihood that Australian citizens would return from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq in the next five years meant some of them would pose a long-term threat.

According to the agency, there are also threats posed both by extremists due to be released from prison in the coming years, and by other prisoners who may have been influenced by imprisoned extremists.

The age at which young people are being radicalised is getting younger and younger, the agency believes, including those below the age of 16.

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In a case study shared by the agency, a network of people were communicating about their support for overseas Islamist extremist groups and terrorism. Minors that were part of the group expressed support for a terror attack, and the agency believed some members of the group could be involved in planning a terror attack.

While the group was investigated, the agency said under the new framework all the members would now be able to be interviewed.

Under the new legislation, minors would only be able to be questioned if they were suspected of planning a terror attack themselves, and the agency believes such powers would be used as a last resort. While the existing case studies involve Islamic extremism, the agency is concerned that younger people are also being increasingly drawn to far-right Neo-Nazi extremist ideology.

The agency emphasised the safeguards in the legislation, including that the Attorney-General must consider the best interests of the child when deciding whether to grant a warrant for questioning. A minor must also have a parent or guardian present and a lawyer present.

Existing compulsory questioning powers have existed since 2003, but have only been used 16 times in that period.

The bill also would allow the use of tracking devices to be authorised within the agency, something that is already available to law enforcement agencies.

"It will also help ASIO in balancing the need to maintain physical surveillance of investigative targets with the need to protect our surveillance officers from physical threats," the submission said.

"This is particularly the case in the current security environment, in which threats can manifest extremely quickly."

This story Power to question 14-year-olds necessary for threats, ASIO says first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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