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Australia’s biggest ever crime sting

This week, Scott Morrison announced Australia’s involvement in a massive organised crime sting coordinated by the FBI. But was the extraordinary press conference more about bad news and poor polling?

This week, Scott Morrison announced Australia’s involvement in a massive organised crime sting coordinated by the FBI. He pushed for greater security powers, but some observers believe what he really wants is a distraction from bad news and poor polling.

 

Guest: Contributing editor for The Monthly Rachel Withers.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

OSMAN:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Osman Faruqi, this is 7am

This week, Scott Morrison announced Australia’s involvement in a massive organised crime sting coordinated by the FBI. At a press conference detailing the operation, Morrison made a push to hand over more power to our national security agencies, including new digital spying powers. 

Today, Rachel Withers on how the operation unfolded - and why Scott Morrison might be looking for a law and order distraction.

[Theme Music Ends]

OSMAN:
Rachel, this week, news broke of an international police operation coordinated by the FBI in the U.S., but also involving numerous domestic agencies, including the AFP here in Australia. It's been described as the biggest police operation in history. Can you tell me about how it started? 

RACHEL:
Yeah, it's a pretty wild story, actually. And thanks to court documents released by the US government this week, we know exactly where it starts. 

OSMAN:
Rachel Withers is a contributing editor at The Monthly

RACHEL:
Back in 2017, the FBI were investigating a company called Phantom Secure.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“Ramos' Company supplied about twenty thousand encrypted BlackBerry cell phones to Mexico's cartels and Australian biker gangs…”

RACHEL:
The phones let drug traffickers avoid surveillance. And in 2018, the FBI charged the CEO of Phantom Secure, as well as other senior figures in the company with aiding and abetting the importation of illegal drugs.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“According to FBI documents, he admitted his technology helped move drugs around the world, including the United States, Australia, Mexico, Canada, Thailand, and Europe…” 

RACHEL:
They were jailed and Phantom Secure was essentially shut down. But that left a huge gap in the market for encrypted devices, which are pretty fundamental to the operations of international drug syndicates. 

OSMAN:
Right, so Phantom Secure is shut down, that leaves a gap in the market...and what's next?

RACHEL:
Well, criminal developers started making alternatives. One developer in particular had created a device known as Anom, which did something similar to Phantom Secure, and he started selling these to criminal networks. Unfortunately for those criminal networks, that developer had actually flipped and become an informant for the FBI. 

OSMAN:
Mmm!

RACHEL:
In return for a reduced sentence on other charges they were facing, they agreed to hand over control of the Anom network to the FBI. But the key thing was to everyone else, it would still seem like the same enterprise and they would continue to sell the devices to underworld syndicates. The idea was to replace Phantom Secure with this new platform, which, unbeknownst to criminals, was controlled by government agencies, and those agencies would use it to monitor criminal organisations without their knowledge.

OSMAN:
Right. So did that plan actually work? How successful was that operation?

RACHEL:
It was very successful, especially in Australia.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“It's been described as the sting of the century. Operation Ironside will go down in history as Australia's largest ever police bust…”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“21 murder plots, more than 3000 kilos of drugs and millions in cash and assets. That's just part of what police say they've uncovered in the nation's largest ever crime sting.”

RACHEL:
Working with the FBI, the AFP basically built a backdoor into Anom’s encryption which allowed security agencies to read messages being sent. 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“Underworld figures were tricked into communicating via an encrypted messaging app. The catch: it had been designed by the police.”

RACHEL:
As part of the operation, they distributed 50 ANOM devices to alleged criminals in Australia. By intercepting messages on those devices, the AFP was able to infiltrate two local criminal networks involved in the trafficking of hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs, weapons and other illegal activity. 

OSMAN:
Right. So what was the outcome of them being able to gather all of this intelligence? How was it used to actually disrupt the criminal networks?

RACHEL:
Well, this week the AFP held a press conference...

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“The AFP's Operation Ironside has allowed the AFP to inflict maximum damage to serious organised crime.” 

RACHEL:
They said those they had arrested were linked to the mafia and outlaw motorcycle gangs, as well as crime syndicates in Asia and Europe.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Speaker:
“As of today, we have charged 224 alleged offenders, including 525 charges laid, shut down six clandestine laboratories, acted upon 21 threats to kill, including saving a family of five and seized 104 firearms and weapons, and almost 45 million in cash…”

RACHEL:
But it's worth noting that some of the powers used in this global crime bust were the controversial encryption breaking laws that the government rushed through in 2018, much to the horror of many privacy experts. AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw was questioned about the legality and ethics of the operation.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter:
“...is it legal or ethical for law enforcement to be controlling an app which uses ...equipment?”

Archival Tape -- Reece Kershaw:
“So first of all, it's legal. And we did use the TOLA passed in 2018 for the first time…”

RACHEL:
Now, the AFP often holds press conferences celebrating successful operations, but the odd thing this time was that the Prime Minister was there in front of a specially made Operation Ironside backdrop. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“Today, the Australian government, as part of a global operation, has struck a heavy blow against organised crime, not just in this country…”

RACHEL:
He made sure that he got a big part of the credit for the operation. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“This is a watershed moment in Australian law enforcement history and at the heart of what our government has been seeking to do ever since we first came to government.”

RACHEL:
And that's where things got particularly interesting, because it then became clear that the point of the press conference for the Prime Minister wasn't just about unveiling details of the disruption of drug trafficking syndicates, but the Prime Minister was also using the press conference to push for even more surveillance powers for police.

OSMAN:
We’ll be back in a moment.

[Advertisement]

OSMAN:
So Rachel, Scott Morrison's managed to associate himself with the biggest police operation in Australian history, and he's managed to take some credit for it as well, he's using it to push for more security legislation. This is a pretty familiar script. There's a long history of national security legislation being used as a way to basically take back control of the political narrative. But let's start with the actual legislation being proposed. What is Morrison actually pushing for?

RACHEL:
So there are three pieces of national security legislation Morrison is using the bust to push, and he talked about all three of them at the press conference alongside the AFP this week.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“We need to continue to provide our law enforcement authorities with the powers and the authorities that they need to do this job.”

RACHEL:
There's a bill to stop workers with links to organised crime or with a history of offending from gaining aviation and maritime security cards. Although there are concerns this will not apply to foreign workers.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“That is the bill that is needed to stop organised criminals getting access to our wharves and to our airports. We have sought to have this bill passed through three successive Parliaments. And it still continues to be opposed by Labor…”

RACHEL:
There's another bill, the international production orders bill, which allows Australian security agencies to share electronic surveillance data with other countries, which is not presently allowed. And Australia has been in discussion with the US for a data sharing deal since 2019, and even put money aside in this year's budget for such a scheme. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“They need these powers to do their job. The AFP and our law enforcement agencies and other agencies that support them, need the support of our Parliament to continue to do the job that they do to continue to keep Australians safe.”

RACHEL:
And then there is the so-called ‘identify and disrupt bill’, which would give law enforcement greater online surveillance powers, granting the AFP new warrant powers to hack into suspect’s online accounts. And under this legislation, police could take control of a suspect's online account with a magistrate's approval or with the approval of an 18 member, a much lower threshold. They could delete or disrupt people's online data or monitor their activity and collect data.

OSMAN:
Right. That's a pretty broad, you know, range of potential powers that the government is looking to pass through the parliament. Are there any concerns coming from advocates of civil liberties, for example, about how wide reaching they are?

RACHEL:
Yeah, there are always concerns about privacy and overreach and how legislation like this could be used for unintended or unspecified purposes. Morrison was quick to attack Labour for not supporting the bills, saying they didn't have bipartisan support and that he couldn't understand why. And the government had been trying to pass some of these bills for three terms. Labor, however, has called this a flat out lie with the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security still working through the bills.

Archival Tape -- Kristina Keneally:
“Mr Morrison today flat-out lied in his media conference about certain pieces of legislation that are currently before the Intelligence and Security committee. Mr Morrison sought to play politics.” 

RACHEL:
Opposition Home Affairs spokeswoman, Kristina Keneally, said the joint committee had looked into the international production of this bill, the one allowing authorities to share surveillance data across borders and made bipartisan recommendations, including safeguards to prevent info being used to punish people with the death penalty. But it had given it the tick of approval pending those changes.

Archival Tape -- Kristina Keneally:
“Mr Morrison also tried to claim that Labour doesn't support the international protection orders bill. He's flat out lying. Maybe he doesn't realise that last week, the Bipartisan Intelligence and Security Committee handed down a unanimous bipartisan report…”

RACHEL:
She said Labour supported the transport security legislation but wanted changes to apply to foreign crews so that local workers aren't subject to more stringent tests than foreign workers. They've also said they wanted a more targeted scart on this one, saying that the legislation forces authorities to predict whether someone would commit a future crime. And she said the joint committee is still reviewing the online surveillance legislation, which has been doing for several months. But she heavily implied Labour was going to support those increased powers and certainly it hasn't spoken out against them publicly, despite the legislation raising some questions from civil rights and legal organisations about people's digital rights.

OSMAN:
Yeah, right. And so despite those concerns from groups and individuals who focus on individual privacy and civil liberties, Labour seems like they're open to supporting most of the legislation. Morrison is saying that they're not. So it seems like he's trying to confect a kind of political battle here using the backdrop of this police bust and put the focus on labour. What do you think that means for how Scott Morrison is trying to shape the political agenda at the moment?

RACHEL:
Yeah, well, national security is classic conservative territory, and Morrison is trying to drag the political agenda back onto what is comfortable turf for him: law and order, police powers, fear of the Internet and organised crime, the idea that Labour doesn't have the guts to keep you safe. Some people are questioning why the Prime Minister would even be holding a press conference about a police operation at all. 

OSMAN:
Good question. 

RACHEL:
But it's clear that this. It was something he wanted to take credit for, you know, in the press conference, we saw him talking about the government having struck a heavy blow against organised crime, talking about keeping Australians safe and listing some of the additional police powers that the coalition has already introduced. And he obviously saw an opportunity to wedge Labour here, portraying them as soft on national security, accusing them of putting the nation at risk merely because a bipartisan committee is reviewing and making recommendations on some of his bills.

And of course, the other thing here is that Morrison is looking for distractions because things aren't really going so well for the government at the moment. He wants a distraction from the confirmation of yet another leak from hotel quarantine. Melbourne is coming out of its lockdown, but states are continuing to call for dedicated federal quarantine facilities so that this can stop happening.  He'd like a distraction from the fact that approval ratings are dropping for both him and the government amid doubts over his competency following a week of damning revelations about aged care. And he surely would have liked a distraction from the news that broke the day before that a little girl in his government's care has developed sepsis due to untreated pneumonia, with questions raised over the time it took for authorities to take her illness seriously And so you can see why Morrison wanted to insert himself into the big crime-busting story of the week and shift the conversation back to national security. 

OSMAN:
Rachel, thanks so much.

RACHEL:
Thanks Os

[Advertisement]

OSMAN:
Also in the news today:

Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has announced he will take the case of David Dungay’s death in police custody to the United Nations human rights committee. Robertson says there has been no proper investigation of Dungay’s death, and that the UN could force Australia to take action.

 

And mask wearing remains mandatory outdoors in Melbourne, despite other lockdown restrictions being eased today. The Victorian government said the mask law remained in place because four new cases of Covid-19 were detected in the state.

 

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Michelle Macklem, and Cinnamon Nippard.

 

Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz and our technical producer is Atticus Bastow. 

 

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our regular host is Ruby Jones. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. 

 

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Follow in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out. 

 

And if you haven’t already, go have a listen to my new podcast, The Culture, also from Schwartz Media. This week’s episode is a deep dive on how Australian hip hop is having a huge impact here and overseas, not that you would know it from reading most of the Australian media. Search for The Culture in your favourite podcast feed.

 

I’m Osman Faruqi. See you next week. 

 

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