ASIO eyes green groups

Philip Dorling April 12, 2012

Illustration: Ron Tandberg.

Illustration: Ron Tandberg.

AUSTRALIA'S leading counter-terrorism agency has been providing intelligence to the federal government on environmental groups that campaign against coalmining.

The Australia Security Intelligence Organisation's politically sensitive monitoring of the campaigners comes after Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson warned that protests at power stations and coal export terminals could have ''life-threatening'' consequences and ''major trade and investment implications''.

Security officials have suggested privately that environmental activists pose greater threats to energy infrastructure than terrorists. But confirmation that ASIO has been monitoring and advising on security issues arising from such activism is likely to cause tensions between federal Labor and their parliamentary allies, the Australian Greens.

Greens leader Bob Brown said yesterday it was ''intolerable that the Labor government was spying on conservation groups'' and condemned the ''deployment of ASIO as a political weapon'' against peaceful protests.

''Martin Ferguson is incorrigible. But it's not just Ferguson. It's the cabinet, it's the Labor government that's happy to use the police and ASIO against community groups, against ordinary people, on behalf of foreign-owned mining corporations,'' he said.

Senator Brown said he would urgently take up the issue with the government, adding that former Labor attorney-general and civil libertarian Lionel Murphy ''would be spinning in his grave''.

The Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism on Tuesday confirmed ASIO's role in advising on security issues relating to protests against coalmining when it refused to release under freedom of information a December 2010 ministerial brief on the possible disruption of energy infrastructure by protesters.

The document has been wholly exempted from release because it contains sensitive information exchanged between federal, state and territory governments, and classified information derived from ''an intelligence agency document''.

ASIO is exempt from freedom of information laws and is described on its website as ''the only agency in the Australian intelligence community authorised in the normal course of its duties to undertake investigations into the activities of Australian persons''. Other FOI documents confirm that Mr Ferguson pressed then attorney-general Robert McClelland in September 2009 to see whether ''the intelligence-gathering services of the Australian Federal Police'' could be used to help energy companies handle increasing activity by coalmining protesters.

Mr Ferguson was particularly concerned about protests at the Hazelwood power station in Victoria, warning that ''protests such as this can lead to unlawful activity designed to directly compromise the delivery of essential services to Australians''.

''The risk of protest-related disruptions in the energy sector is likely to continue in the near future … these disruptions pose a real threat to the reliable delivery of electricity and other essential services,'' he said. Such disruptions ''at critical times can have serious, and at times life-threatening, repercussions across the community''.

Mr McClelland confirmed in reply in November 2009 that the AFP ''continually monitors the activities of issues-motivated groups and individuals who may target establishments through direct action, or action designed to disrupt or interfere with essential services''.

Mr McClelland also highlighted the role of ASIO ''in intelligence gathering, analysis and advice in relation to protest activity [that] focuses on actual, or the potential for, violence''.

He said that ''where warranted, ASIO advice may take the form of security intelligence reports, notification of protest action or threat assessments''.

Other documents released under FOI have been heavily redacted to prevent disclosure of methods for ''preventing, detecting, investigating and dealing with illegal disruption to critical energy infrastructure''.

The still-classified December 2010 briefing to Mr Ferguson by his department's energy security branch followed an intelligence warning about a planned anti-coal protest in NSW's Hunter Valley. The department then ensured that the industry body Australian Energy Market Operator and power companies Macquarie Generation and TransGrid were alerted to a ''peaceful mass action'' near the Bayswater power station.

Seventy-three protesters who sat on a rail line were arrested and fined $250. Most convictions were overturned on appeal.

Former and current security sources have confirmed to The Age that ASIO has increased monitoring of protests that might disrupt energy infrastructure.

''Providing advice and intelligence to safeguard [critical infrastructure] is clearly within ASIO's responsibilities,'' one security source said. ''ASIO has a clear role, including protection against sabotage. And it's clear [environmental] activists pose a greater threat to energy facilities than terrorists.''

Security sources also highlighted The Australian Financial Review's publication last month of plans by environmental groups to ''disrupt and delay'' coal industry development through a range of measures including legal action, public campaigning and protests.

A leaked draft strategy prepared by Greenpeace campaigner John Hepburn includes proposals for more than $1.1 million to be spent on a ''field organising program'' and efforts to co-ordinate local protest groups.

A spokesperson for Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said the ''Australian government recognises and respects people's right to peaceful protest but will not tolerate unlawful or violent protest actions''.

While declining to comment on ASIO operations, the spokesperson said the agency's ''responsibility regarding protest activity is limited to activity that is, or has the potential to be, violent for the purposes of achieving a political objective''.

Protests against coalmining so far have been peaceful. Resources and Energy Department briefings show that only four protests have interfered briefly with electricity generation.

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