New secret search powers
Tom Allard SMH.com.au
August 1, 2007
POLICE and security agencies will be given unprecedented "sneak and peek" powers to search the homes and computers of suspects without their knowledge under legislation to go before Federal Parliament next week.
The extensive powers - which also give federal police the right to monitor communications equipment without an interceptions warrant - come amid growing public disquiet about counter-terrorism powers following the bungled handling of the Mohamed Haneef case.
Under the laws, officers from the federal police and other agencies would be able to execute "delayed notification warrants", allowing them to undertake searches, seize equipment and plant listening devices in businesses and homes.
Police and security officers will be able to assume false identities to gain entry and conduct the surreptitious searches.
But the person affected by the raid does not have to be informed for at least six months, and can remain in the dark for 18 months if the warrant is rolled over.
The warrant is to be issued by the head of a police service or security agency without the approval of a judicial officer. It can also be extended for more than 18 months with the sanction of the minister.
The lack of judicial oversight was justified by the Minister for Justice and Customs, David Johnston, on the grounds that a court or judicial officer might leak news of the warrant.
"I don't want to impugn anyone, but the security of these operations has to be pristine," Senator Johnston told the Herald.
Moreover, the warrant can be issued for any offence that carries a prison term of 10 years or more, despite a strong recommendation from a bipartisan Senate committee earlier this year that it only be used for investigations into terrorism, organised crime and "offences involving death or serious injury with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment".
The new powers have their genesis in a meeting of state, territory and federal police ministers two years ago to create uniform search warrants.
They are scheduled to be introduced to the Senate on Tuesday when Parliament resumes.
But they are likely to be scrutinised more heavily in the wake of the detention and subsequent dropping of terrorism-related charges against Dr Haneef.
The Greens senator Kerry Nettle said the handling of Dr Haneef's case served as a reminder that law enforcement and intelligence agencies made mistakes, and already had extensive and intrusive powers.
"Given the Haneef debacle, now is not the time to be giving more powers to the Australian Federal Police," she said.
The position of the Labor Opposition is unknown. The party did not return calls yesterday.
Federal police say they need the powers because current rules mean suspects are tipped off that they are under investigation.
"It then allows associates unknown to the police to destroy or relocate evidence or activities to other premises not known to police," the Deputy Commissioner John Lawler told a Senate committee earlier this year. "It often prevents the full criminality of those involved being known."
The bill also deals with "controlled operations" - undercover operations where federal agents are permitted to undertake criminal activity in order to further their investigations.
Federal authorities will have far greater scope to undertake such operations and will no longer need approval from the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
The bill provides for immunity not only to the undercover police or security officer involved but also civilian informants.
For the first time it also allows foreign police and intelligence agencies to take part in undercover operations and to use false identities.