Australia passes tougher spy laws

The spy legislation will now be sent to the lower House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass easily

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Laws giving Australian intelligence agencies stronger powers have passed the nation’s upper house of parliament, as the government also introduced new wording to prohibit torture.

Attorney-General George Brandis said the legislation -- the first counter-terrorism bill to go to parliament amid growing concerns about Islamic state of Iraq and Syria militants -- was vital to plug gaps in the law.

“What we have achieved tonight is to ensure that those who protect us, particularly in a newly dangerous age, have the strong powers and capabilities they need,” Brandis said as the bill passed late Thursday.

“But we’ve also achieved the outcome that those strong powers are protected and balanced by strong safeguards.”

Under the proposed news laws, anyone who identifies an Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) agent or special intelligence operation without authorization can be jailed for 10 years.

The National Security Legislation Bill will also allow spies to obtain information from “third-party” computers and provides them with limited protection from criminal and civil liability in authorized intelligence operations.

The bill also includes a provision specifically prohibiting torture, after concerns were raised by some lawmakers.

Brandis said this week that no operation which allowed torture could ever be validly authorized under the powers that ASIO holds but he nevertheless added an explicit prohibition for special intelligence operations.

The Australian Greens opposed the bill, and questioned whether increased penalties for revealing intelligence information would stifle the press.

“We are doing away with freedoms of the press that have been fought for a long period of time and have now been given away,” Greens leader Christine Milne said.

Brandis rejected the claim.

“This is not about reporting on the operation of the intelligence agencies, it’s about intentionally disclosing a covert operation with reckless disregard as to that circumstance,” he said.

The bill is part of a suite of changes by the government to boost counter-terror provisions, with a second tranche of laws targeting foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria to be reviewed by parliament’s intelligence and security committee.

The spy legislation, which was supported by the opposition Labor Party, will now be sent to the lower House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass easily.