One of the problems with the actions by Western governments, including our own, to further extend the surveillance powers of their security agencies at the expense of the rights of their citizens is that terrorist incidents are perpetrated by people already well-known to security agencies. The Woolwich murderers in the UK and the Charlie Hebdo murderers in France had long been identified as potential threats by the security agencies of those countries but were not under surveillance by those agencies at the time they carried out their attacks. Even the perpetrators of the Boston bombing had been flagged to US security agencies.

Australia’s own awful contribution to this trend is of Man Haron Monis, a man not merely with copious files at ASIO and the AFP and a conviction for harassing the families of ADF personnel killed overseas, but one who was being prosecuted for sexual assault and in connection with a murder at the time that he perpetrated the Martin Place siege in Sydney.

A joint NSW-Commonwealth inquiry earlier this year gave ASIO and the AFP a pass on this apparent failure of counter-terrorism, which reflected an inability by (mostly male) counter-terrorism personnel to connect Monis’ predisposition to sexual and domestic violence with a potential to commit a public act of ostensibly religiously motivated violence.

At Senate estimates yesterday, Attorney-General George Brandis was asked to explain what had happened when Monis had written to him in October last year, just weeks before the siege, asking about whether he could legally contact the head of Islamic State.

There’s no issue attaching to Brandis’ handling of the letter — his office would receive thousands of letters a year, and no minister can read all of his or her correspondence. But there’s a genuine question over the handling of the letter by AGD’s National Security Law and Policy Division, to which Brandis’ office referred the letter in accordance with normal process.

As chance would have it, that division is the one responsible for driving the mass surveillance agenda of the last seven years within government, arguing that giving governments ever more power to monitor, record and track their citizens’communications and movements is critical to enabling Australia to fight terrorism.

According to Brandis, on receipt of that letter, that division merely wrote back to Monis telling him he should get his own legal advice. The letter wasn’t, as far as we know, referred to ASIO or the AFP, despite Monis’ conviction and pending prosecutions.

So let’s be clear: the area of AGD that has for so long been insistent that the government needs more power over its citizens’ personal information in order to fight terrorism actually receives a letter from a man with a record like Monis’, who would shortly carry out an act of terrorism, and thinks nothing of it.

Would history be different if someone in that division had decided it was a little odd that a man with Monis’ record wanted to know if he could contact Islamic State? Probably not. This isn’t about whether some bureaucrat doing their job somehow accidentally contributed to a tragedy. It’s about mindlessly pushing for ever greater powers for security agencies, when it’s tragically clear that, even when potential terrorists deliberately draw attention to themselves, they’re not investigated.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey