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Spy watcher queries ‘flexibility’ argument

Australia’s spy watchdog says it’s not helpful for intelligence agencies to say greater checks and balances interfere with their “operational flexibility”.

The term is used by intelligence agencies and government that argue against inserting further checks in the Assistance and Access Act – laws that empower law enforcement and national security agencies to request, or compel, assistance from telecommunications providers.

The agencies can, under certain rules, obtain warrants to access data and devices, and have an expanded ability of criminal law enforcement agencies to collect evidence from electronic devices.

An inquiry by parliament’s powerful intelligence and security committee is having a third crack at examining the laws, which continue to prove controversial despite multiple amendments.

Margaret Stone, who is stepping down as the inspector-general of intelligence and security, told a hearing on Friday that oversight laws were important.

Ms Stone said intelligence agencies had properly been notifying her office within seven days when powers were being exercised.

But she “still had views” about the laws, which would work better with further amendments, including dealing with the possibility of arbitrary arrest or detention.

The inspector-general raised a broader point about the approach of agencies to proposals for more safeguards.

“In some submissions the comment is made quite properly that certain safeguards would interfere with ‘operational flexibility’ and I’m sure that is correct,” Ms Stone said.

“What we need to bear in mind is everything we are talking about interferes with operational flexibility – that is why we are here.

“Unless that claim is backed up by evidence … merely suggesting it compromises operational flexibility actually doesn’t assist very much.”

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