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Issue #1622      December 11, 2013

Exploitation, oppression, feed on secrecy

Australians got a foretaste last week of how the national security state being completed by the Abbott government plans to operate. ASIO raided citizens who were threatening to lift the lid on the spying conducted against Timor-Leste (East Timor) during sea boundary negotiations in 2004. Those negotiations were crucial in determining which country would get the biggest chunk of revenues from the oil and gas reserves under the Greater Sunrise gas field off the coast of Timor-Leste. It seems the then Howard government was leaving nothing to chance in securing the lion’s share. It authorised the Australian Security Intelligence Service (ASIS) to bug the offices of the Timor Leste Prime Minister Minister Mari Alkatiri and his cabinet.

Last week, ASIO swooped on the office of Canberra-based lawyer (and former ACT Attorney-General) Bernard Collaery who is assisting the Timor-Leste government contest the Greater Sunrise deal at arbitration proceedings in The Hague. Documents and computer files were removed in the operation. Officers refused to show any search warrant. ASIO also raided the home of the former ASIS officer in charge of technical operations during the 2004 bugging. The whistle-blower was detained and interrogated and his passport was seized. He was to be a star witness for Timor-Leste’s legal team as proceedings got underway last week.

Mr Collaery summed up the intention of the raids very neatly. “These tactics are designed to intimidate the witness and others from coming forward. It’s designed to cover up an illegal operation in 2004 by ASIS,” he said.

Father Frank Brennan, who has written extensively on the Greater Sunrise issue, drew fire from the establishment with a piece in The Age agreeing with Mr Collaery and insisting that the Australian government must comply with the requirements of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. That Convention sets out the obligation for parties to negotiate in good faith and with free consent.

Abbott government heavyweights have been as tight-lipped as possible since the raids. Attorney General George Brandis said in Parliament that he had not been aware of what material was being sought with the ASIO raids but was convinced the request for documents had “conformed to statutory tests”.

Figures representing Timor-Leste were clearly outraged. Abel Guterres, the country’s ambassador to Australia, said the arbitrators in The Hague “will draw their own conclusion” about the enforced absence of the ASIS whistle-blower. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão said the “aggressive action against a key witness is unconscionable and unacceptable conduct.” The latest developments provide extra context to heated comments from the Timor-Leste PM after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blew the secrecy surrounding Australia’s phone tapping of the Indonesian President and his wife.

Alexander Downer, Howard’s Foreign Minister at the time, brushed the latest reports aside saying the whole issue is “old news”. Downer was quoted once as saying to the then Timor-Leste Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri that he would give him a “lesson in politics” during the tense negotiations over the impoverished nation’s oil and gas resources. Mr Alkatiri was a strong economic nationalist. His administration was subsequently destabilised and he was forced to resign as Prime Minister.

Mr Downer went on to work as a consultant for Woodside Petroleum, the company given rights to develop the Timor Gap reserves in question. The Minister for Energy and Resources in the Gillard Government, Gary Gray, was also an adviser to Woodside. Gillard showed no interest in reviewing the deal that most see as unjust on Timor-Leste and which drew so much protest internationally.

Spooks in the news

Meanwhile, it has emerged Brandis attempted to defuse public concern at revelations that Australia offered to share a huge cache of data on Australian citizens with other members of the “Five Eyes” international spy network. Documents released by Edward Snowden claim the offer was made at a meeting of security chiefs from the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia in London in 2008. Mass “metadata” was offered to the foreign spooking services though it seems Canada’s sensitivity to collecting information on individuals’ religion, health and legal status might have hosed down the Australians’ enthusiasm.

Metadata is general information about communications rather than the contents themselves. The when, from and to whom details are still very valuable pieces of information for spy agencies. Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate (DSD – now called the Australian Signals Directorate) “can share bulk unselected, un-minimised metadata as long as there is no intention to target an Australian national”, according to records of the GCHQ conference. “Unintentional collection is not considered a significant issue.” Australia’s super cooperative attitude was well and truly noted.

Spying, bluster and behind-the-scenes intimidation – that’s the Abbott agenda for completing the national security state. It must be defeated before it goes any further.

Next article – Editorial – Whence the “Spirit of Australia”

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