The Age this week continued what seems to be an irregular series on the Victoria Police’s covert intelligence operations:

The internet communications and websites of anti-war campaigners, environmentalists, animal rights activists and other protest groups are being secretly monitored by state and federal agencies.

A Melbourne private intelligence firm specialising in “open-source intelligence” has been engaged by Victoria Police, the Australian Federal Police and the federal Attorney-General’s Department to monitor and report on the protest movements’ use of the internet.

The monitoring, which has been secretly conducted for at least five years, includes exploring websites, online chat rooms, social networking sites, email lists and bulletin boards to gather information on planned demonstrations and other activities. Many of those monitored have not broken any laws, but it is believed information about their participation in online activities is conveyed to government agencies that also deal with terrorism.

The outsourcing of such operations was necessary, we learn, because “prior to this arrangement, the analysts and investigators spent a considerable amount of their time ‘surfing the net’.”

Nice work if you can get it, this analysis and investigation caper.

Of course, we’ve seen this “open source intelligence” before. In the early nineties, The Age revealed that Victoria Police operatives had, on precisely the same basis, interested themselves in community radio station 3CR. Back then, though, the agents possessed a little more zeal. Rather than just listening to the radio, the police decided to produce it, with two undercover officers enrolling as presenters and eventually becoming regular hosts of the 3CR breakfast show.

As you’d expect, there’s an inherent tendency to mission creep in these creepy missions.

A few days ago, a former communications intercept operator named David Mufee Faulk revealed that US intelligence had been gathering a file “of a personal nature” on Bush’s most loyal poodle, Britain’s Prime Minister Blair. Not surprisingly, an agency collecting data on Tony “Yo” Blair saw everyone else as fair game, too.

Faulk says that:

He personally snooped on interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer’s “courting, wooing and pillow talk” to his Kurdish fiancée and fellow public official Nasrin Barwari. […] Mr Faulk told ABC Nightline that people at the agency would sometimes listen to calls that contained “pillow talk” or “phone s-x” from military officers or aid workers for fun.

Fun for the spies; for the aid workers, not so much.

Here’s the thing: there’s nothing criminal about caring about the environment — why, even Peter Garrett used to do it. People planning protests against live animal exports are exercising lawful rights. Their activities are just as legitimate as those of, say, the National Farmers Federation. Indeed, a democratic society should be actively encouraging community organising (what do you think President Obama once did for a crust?), rather than viewing it as some kind of gateway to crime.

As for the old mantra, “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide”, it cuts both ways.

A week or so ago, Baron Thomas Henry Bingham, former head of the judicial branch of the House of Lords, reaffirmed that, in all probability, the Iraq war was illegal: “a serious violation of international law and the rule of law.”

In Australia, the man most responsible for that “serious violation” (which, according to best estimates, produced over a million deaths ) is not only still at large, he was on TV just the other night, boasting about his crimes.

If anti-war activists are legitimate police targets, where’s the “open source intelligence” operation prying into the online activities of politicians — or, perhaps, journalists? Just think of the potential John Howards and Greg Sheridans who could be nipped in the bud. As for the rest of them, well, if they’ve done nothing wrong…

Peter Fray

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