AUSTRALIAN spies are demanding legal immunity to infiltrate and train with terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
The Attorney-General’s Department wants to authorise ASIO agents and informants to provide training to, or be trained by, terrorists in covert missions. Agents now risk criminal prosecution for “associating covertly with targets” even if they are collecting intelligence.
“If an ASIO officer or human source is tasked to collect covert intelligence in relation to a terrorist organisation, they may be open to criminal liability under the Criminal Code if, in the course of collecting the relevant intelligence, they receive training from that organisation,” the Attorney-General’s Department has told the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security.
A department spokeswoman yesterday said ASIO officers wanted the same legal immunity granted to police working undercover.
“We want to make sure our agencies have the powers they need to protect Australians from terrorism, which is why we’ve asked the committee to consider the changes,” she said.
“In order to obtain intelligence on threats to security, it may sometimes be necessary for ASIO to engage in an authorised way with individuals who may be involved in criminal activity.”
Australia’s “spymaster”, Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Vivienne Thom, has warned the committee that her agents cannot operate in “grey areas”.
“The ability to give itself immunity from Australian law would be a significant new power for ASIO,” she says in her submission.
“Engaging in activities that would otherwise be illegal carries significant risk, particularly for human sources.”
Dr Thom says that “intelligence and security agencies must act lawfully”.
“It is not acceptable for agencies to operate in ‘grey areas’,” she said.
“If parliament decides to permit ASIO employees and sources to engage in activity that may otherwise be illegal then, in my view, there should be a carefully considered regime to regulate this.”
The Attorney-General’s Department also wants agents from Australia’s overseas spy agency, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, to be allowed to conduct weapons training with police and military officers, including soldiers or police from the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand.
The departmental spokeswoman said the Gillard government “has made no decisions” about the demands as it was awaiting the parliamentary committee’s report, due next year.