Court documents claim Alexander Downer branded Timor-Leste an ‘open book’ in 2000 – years before wiretapping scandal
Court documents claim Australia may have monitored telephone calls from political leaders in Timor-Leste in 2000, four years before Australian intelligence agents bugged the small country’s Cabinet offices ahead of crucial negotiations over lucrative oil and gas reserves.
- Rex Patrick believes Mr Downer’s alleged comments ‘essentially confirmed’ that Australia was monitoring communications in Timor-Leste before 2004
- The documents claim Timorese leaders also expressed concern that they were under extensive electronic surveillance
- Senator Patrick is seeking access to secret documents about Australia’s relationship with the country following its 1999 independence vote
The documents include allegations that then-foreign secretary Alexander Downer told a Labor staffer in 2000 that Timor-Leste was an “open book” for Australia.
Timor-Leste’s first president, Xanana Gusmao, also claims a senior UN diplomat tipped him off to Australian espionage.
The claims are contained in documents filed with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (ATT) by Independent Senator Rex Patrick.
Senator Patrick has launched a court battle for access to archived cabinet documents outlining Australia’s approach to negotiations with Timor-Leste’s leaders as the fledgling country made the transition to full independence.
The documents include a sworn statement from Mr Gusmao and another from Philip Dorling, an academic who has also worked as a journalist, foreign affairs officer and political adviser.
Dr Dorling is currently working as an adviser to Senator Patrick, but his affidavit recounts events from 2000, when he worked for former shadow Foreign Secretary Laurie Brereton.
On August 10 of the same year, Dr. Dorling and Mr. Brereton met with several Timorese politicians, including Jose Ramos-Horta and Joao Carrascalao.
Dr Dorling’s affidavit says the pair “privately expressed concern that the Australian Government was engaged in extensive electronic surveillance directed at the rulers of East Timor”.
“They referred to Telstra’s role in providing communications services in East Timor and expressed the view that Australian officials appeared to have knowledge of East Timor’s political affairs that could only have been obtained through interception phone,” the statement said.
Mr Downer said he did not recall the conversation with Dr Dorling 22 years ago.
He said it was “particularly thick” for people to think that Australia would send peacekeepers to Timor-Leste without first knowing as much as possible about the environment there.
“What I remember is that we had thousands of troops in East Timor at the time and obviously we did our best to understand the environment there,” he said.
Timorese politicians support request for declassification of documents
Mr Ramos Horta and Mr Carrascalao went public with the accusation in 2001, telling the ABC they believed the Australian government was monitoring their conversations.
The court documents also expose Dr Dorling’s account of a private discussion he had with Alexander Downer during a flight later that month, on August 31.
The pair – along with Mr Brereton – were returning from another visit to Timor-Leste and discussing the role of intelligence in diplomacy while Mr Brereton took a nap on the plane.
“[Mr Downer] pointed out to me that as a DFAT officer I would know Australia’s intelligence capabilities, and went on to say, according to a note of the conversation I made, “You know. There’s not much there [in Dili] we do not know. We know what they say about Laurie. They are an open book for us,” Dr. Dorling’s statement read.
“I interpreted Mr. Downer’s remarks, in the context of a discussion of the value of signals intelligence to diplomatic operations, as confirming the concerns expressed by Mr. Ramos-Horta and Mr. Carrascalao.”
Dr. Dorling’s affidavit includes a handwritten account of this conversation which he says he had shortly afterwards.
The documents also include a statement from Xanana Gusmao, who supported Senator Patrick’s legal campaign for access to all Cabinet documents relating to national border negotiations and the sharing of Timor Sea gas reserves.
Most cabinet records are released after 20 years, but Senator Patrick says several documents on the negotiations have been withheld because the National Archives says the information could harm Australia’s relationship with Timor-Leste.
Last week, the National Archives released to Senator Patrick some of the documents originally withheld, but several remain classified.
The National Archives said it could not comment on this story because Sen. Patrick’s case is still before the AAT.
Call to “just be open and transparent”
Australia’s ties with Timor-Leste have been deeply strained by accusations that it bugged Timor-Leste’s cabinet offices in 2004 in order to gain an advantage in negotiations over the Timor Sea.
The operation was exposed by a former intelligence officer known as Witness K, who was given a three-month suspended sentence last year for conspiring to reveal classified information.
The Australian government has consistently refused to confirm or deny whether the tapping took place.
But Mr Gusmao’s statement to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal says he is convinced Cabinet rooms were bugged, partly because the Australian government has never denied it, and partly because of his own experience.
Mr Gusmao also suggests Australia may have been monitoring his conversations long before 2004, recounting a conversation he had with senior UN diplomat Sergio Di Mello around 2000.
His statement reads: “For example, I remember that around 1999 or 2000…the late and highly respected senior UN diplomat, Sergio Di Mello, calling me from time to time to discuss developments in Timor-Leste, on one occasion said words to me to the effect: “whisper what you have to say, otherwise Australia will hear our conversation.”
The former president’s affidavit also states that the release of all cabinet documents on the negotiations “cannot reasonably be considered harmful to bilateral relations” because knowledge of espionage was already so widespread in Timor-Leste.
“Any continuing secrecy regarding these events only serves to create an additional sense of suspicion and impropriety between neighbours,” his statement read.
Senator Patrick believes Mr Downer’s alleged comments in 2000 ‘essentially confirmed’ that Australia was monitoring communications in Timor-Leste long before 2004, saying the effort was most likely focused on gathering information to negotiations on gas and oil contracts.
“Timor was a young, fragile, inexperienced and absolutely desperate country that needed oil and gas revenue to rebuild its country, and Australia sought to steal it from them.”
This account is disputed by some. A former senior Australian official told the ABC it was wrong to assume that all intelligence-gathering attempts in Timor-Leste at the time focused on border negotiations.
Australia sent more than 5,000 troops to Timor-Leste in 1999 as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force that restored order and stabilized the fledgling country after pro-Indonesian militias massacred hundreds of civilians.
Senator Patrick has promised to continue his legal fight to access more government documents on the saga.
“Our secrecy around this event is undermining people’s trust in our nation,” he said.