In an effort to recover from the problems caused by its appearance before a Senate committee considering amendments to ASIO’s spying powers last week, the Attorney-General’s department has made a remarkable third submission to the committee in an effort to explain exactly why ASIO needs its power to spy on foreign organisations significantly expanded.

Last Thursday, an officer of the AGD appeared before the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee to explain the amendments and dispute suggestions the expansion in ASIO’s powers was intended to enable it to spy on WikiLeaks, or Australians engaged in activism overseas. A key issue — just what sort of threats to Australia currently cannot be spied on by ASIO (on application to the Attorney-General) that would be brought within the organisation’s remit – remained unclear after the officer struggled to produce an example that wasn’t already caught by the current ASIO Act. That enables it to collect foreign intelligence regarding foreign states, those connected with foreign states and foreign political organisations, if it is “important in relation to the defence of the Commonwealth or to the conduct of the Commonwealth’s international affairs.”

The department insists that it is important that there be consistency of definitions across intelligence organisations, though it is not interested in “consistency for the sake of consistency”.

The department’s second submission sought to respond to issues raised by the Castan Centre for Human Rights. Its third submission — it is not unusual for departments to make two submissions to Senate inquiries, an initial one and then a follow-up one to address material taken on notice at appearances before hearings — again grapples with the problem of who can’t be spied on now that could be under the amendment. The department now suggests that the example used at last week’s hearing — nuclear, biological of chemical proliferation — could be “better countered” under the amendment, rather than serving as a clear example of what couldn’t be caught now.

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the actors involved include individuals and companies working in and across multiple countries. These actors might not be connected to any foreign state but may be profit-driven and engaging in the trade of weapons of mass destruction solely as a commercial transaction without any affiliation with a foreign power. This could jeopardise Australia‘s national security

As Labor Senator Louise Pratt observed last week in response, a proliferation example may well be caught under ASIO’s existing remit in relation to Australia’s defence and security.

In addition, Attorney-General’s now offers a new example:

The ability for ASIO to collect intelligence on matters pertinent to Australia‘s national security, foreign relations and national economic well-being would provide, for example, Australian authorities with a better understanding of illegal fishing operations, and enable the relevant Australian authorities to take appropriate action internationally. Illegal fishing puts at risk Australian jobs, investment and the sustainability of fish stocks.

So there you have it — the one clear example of why the government wants a significant expansion in ASIO’s foreign intelligence remit is to provide it with “a better understanding of illegal fishing operations”. It has nothing to do with WikiLeaks, but is all about the fish.

On another issue on which officials struggled last week — why there was a need to rush the amendments, the third submissions purported to address that but failed to add anything:

Given the security environment and the fact that the measures will improve the practical operation of the legislation, it is important that they now be progressed in a timely way.

Classic bureaucrat-speak.

There is much to be sceptical of in this move to expand ASIO’s remit, and the performance of the Attorney-General’s department has done nothing to address that scepticism. Its inability to provide a clear rationale for the expansion in ASIO’s powers and the blithe assurances of bureaucrats that WikiLeaks or activists are the last things on the minds of spooks suggest this bill deserved a far better investigation that the quick-and-dirty inquiry the major parties have agreed to.