ASIO Seeks Powers to Question 14-Year-Olds to Investigate National Security Threats

July 10, 2020 Updated: July 20, 2020

Australia’s national spy agency is seeking new powers to question 14-year-olds in the presence of a lawyer to reflect the “reality” of Australia’s evolving national security threats, following at least three incidents of minors involved in thwarted terror plots.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) wrote in a submission to Parliament in May that it’s “concerned that vulnerable and impressionable young people” were at risk of being caught up in the streams of hate spread across the internet from “extremists of every ideology.”

The submission noted that the ISIS terrorist group “set the standard among Islamist extremists” for disseminating propaganda in Australia; and that right-wing extremists also continue to produce “internet-savvy, sophisticated messaging.”

According to ASIO, since 2015, one terrorist attack and three disrupted plots have involved teenagers under the age of 18.

“Minors continue to be involved in attacks and attack planning,” ASIO noted in its submission.

The submission also noted that Australia’s “probable” terror threat was unacceptably high.

When Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton brought the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Amendment Bill 2020 before Parliament on May 13, he said that the number of terrorism leads that ASIO is investigating has doubled since that time last year.

“The director-general also noted that the threat to Australia from foreign interference and espionage is higher now than it was at the height of the Cold War,” Dutton said.

He said the bill would improve ASIO’s capacity to respond to the threats.

“The threats posed today by espionage and foreign interference operate at a scale, breadth, and ambition that has not previously been seen in Australia,” ASIO’s submission (pdf) to Parliament states.

“Espionage and foreign interference are affecting parts of the Australian community previously untouched by such threats, even during the Cold War,” the intelligence agency said.

Response to the Bill

Child advocates have argued that the powers are inappropriate.

Save the Children Chief Executive Paul Ronalds says that there’s little evidence to justify lowering the age of questioning, AAP reported on July 10.

“If successful, it will undermine the democratic ideals and way of life that it purports to protect, putting at-risk children’s rights in the justice system, including the right to a fair trial.”

In a statement on July 10, the Law Council of Australia President Pauline Wright said that it’s concerning that there would be inadequate safeguards for the questioning of 14-year-old children.

“The Law Council is not denying that intelligence operatives work in a complex and dynamic security environment and need appropriate and adequate powers to keep the community safe,” Wright said. “But there needs to be greater precision in defining the limits and authorization thresholds for the proposed powers in the amendment.”