Subject: Age/E.Timor: Were the Balibo five nearly saved?

also: Leaders cryptic on SAS claims

The Age December 8, 2001

Were the Balibo five nearly saved?


In 1996, I had been told about a man who claimed to have been at Balibo when the journalists died, as part of an Australian SAS force. I finally tracked him down and won his agreement to talk on the basis of anonymity. We met at his home in England in 1999. This man now works as a consultant for a Balkan army; in short, he is a soldier of fortune. The story he told is an extraordinary one. If true, it changes everything known about the Balibo case.

He claimed to have been the commander of a 12-person SAS unit that was on the ground near Balibo four to five days before the announcement that the bodies had been found. This sets the date as October 15 or 16, although he agreed it may have been a day before that. They were brought out by submarine and parachuted in, he said. He said they went in from Goroka in Papua New Guinea. The unit was dropped close to Balibo village. Their mission, he said, stemmed from a Whitlam government decision: get (the journalists) out forcibly, at gunpoint, if necessary.

A place had been predesignated at which the journalists were to rendezvous with his men, but the unit was not informed how the journalists were to be delivered this message, or indeed persuaded to act on it. The orders and briefings in this highly secret operation were on a need-to-know basis. The commander assumed, however, that whoever was the Australian Secret Intelligence Service agent on the ground in Dili had responsibility for making necessary arrangements.

The SAS mission failed, my informant said, because the journalists did not turn up at the assigned meeting place. The unit was on the ground for less than a day altogether, but risked exposure by overstaying its set time in the hope that the contact would occur.

According to the former commander, two other governments (the New Zealand and the Portuguese) had been contacted in advance and had agreed on the operation, but there had been no contact with the Indonesian government. The mission went smoothly and there were no problems apart from the journalists' non-appearance.

In an attempt to ascertain whether Australia had sought Wellington's agreement for the hypothetical SAS operation, I contacted New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark last year. In a letter dated November 7, she stated: "Officials have conducted a thorough search of New Zealand government archives. They have found no evidence to support these claims."

Given the difficulty of confirming the informant's testimony, it can only be taken as prima facie evidence, but there are further fragments of information that do enhance the story's credibility.

Following a Foreign Correspondent program on the death of the newsmen, among the many callers was a man who said he knew of a person who claimed to have been with the SAS not only in the Balibo area, but in the town square itself on October 16, and to have been injured in a firefight with the Indonesians.

My source said that this man, who had a long history of service in the SAS, claimed to have been shot in the arm in Balibo. He, too, maintained that he had been sent there to get the journalists out alive, and had arrived as the attack was occurring. His group managed to penetrate to the Balibo square and the Chinese house, the story went, but when they got there, the source told me, they found the bodies of the executed journalists laid out in the house. The SAS quickly retreated, he said, to be taken off Timor by submarine.

In April last year, I ran this second SAS man to ground with the assistance of my source. By phone, I told him about the book I was writing, and said I would like to talk to him and ask some questions. After a pause, he said, "I'm not sure I want to go down that track. I still have connections". But then he proposed that I e-mail him some questions, and he would consider whether he could reply. On April 18, I sent a questionnaire that would involve him only answering true or false.

By April 23, I had received no reply. I sent another message, stressing guarantees that I would safeguard his identity. On April 26, the unsigned reply came: "Hi. I'm afraid I cannot comment on any of your questions. I have no idea who pointed you in my direction but there has obviously been a case of mistaken identity."

There our exchange came to an end. It was on a note that contradicted the earlier phone conversation, and was internally contradictory, in giving two slightly different reasons for not replying fully: I cannot comment, and there has obviously been a case of mistaken identity.

Because I already knew the rough outline of this man's claims when I interviewed the first alleged SAS man, I had run the story past him. He at first dismissed it, saying no SAS person had been wounded at Balibo, but then admitted that, after the debacle of his mission, a second expedition could well have been sent in and that on SAS security principles he would not have known about it.

How does one evaluate this material? Without further corroboration it can only be treated as circumstantial evidence.

There is some further circumstantial evidence of an Australian intelligence presence on the ground near Balibo at the time of the deaths. A close friend of one of the dead reporters later came to know an agent of ASIO, who told her he had been close to Balibo, transmitting from a radio at the time of the deaths. He refused to give any other details. He said he was transported in and out by a Caribou aircraft. Quite by coincidence, this same friend some years later was told by a work colleague that he had also been there at the time, and produced a photo of himself standing against a Caribou aircraft, with some Timorese.

Documents declassified by the Australian Government in September last year show that in Jakarta on October 24, 1975, diplomat Allan Taylor was defending accusations from intelligence officer Harry Tjan (Silalahi) that, some days before, the Australian submarine Oxley had entered Portuguese Timorese waters. Taylor vigorously denied the charges. The Oxley, one of four Oberon-class submarines commissioned by the Australian government in the 1960s, was ideal for such secret missions, and had been used in Australian SAS training programs.

Indonesian complaints to the Australians in this post-Balibo period also included accusations of violations of Indonesian air space by Caribou aircraft crossing the border from Portuguese Timor some weeks before. Once again, the Australians denied the charges.

But in an interview at his Maroochydore home on the Sunshine Coast, former squadron leader Lance Stanley Harding blithely admitted he flew regularly over the border in RAAF planes to peek at the situation in West Timor. On intelligence activities he would only say that he filed regular reports to the defence department on the intelligence situation.

Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra (Desmond Ball and Hamish McDonald, Allen Unwin, 2000) contains the first suggestion that the Australian government might have considered rescuing the journalists. The authors point to the means by which Canberra could have got a message to them, using a group of Australian army doctors. Ball and McDonald claim the doctors were equipped with radios and received daily reports about security conditions based on Defence Signals Directorate intelligence. Conceivably, they could have been used to pass on a message to Fretilin to be sent by radio-telephone to Maliana and thence hand-carried to Balibo.

The jump to the notion of a rescue operation doesn't make sense in the context in which it appears, but it does if viewed in the light of my first SAS informant's claim that Australian intelligence agents on the ground in Timor had the responsibility to get a message to the journalists for purposes of the rescue operation he was involved in, but failed to do so.

Last year, I interviewed former Fretlin commander Sabika, who witnessed the journalists' deaths. He told me that three Timorese men entered Balibo in the days immediately before the attack. They said their car had broken down just outside the town, but he did not believe that was the real reason they had come. It is possible that they were English-speaking Timorese working for the Australians. Although they were not observed to have contact with the journalists, this remains a possibility.

Until the prima facie evidence presented by these former SAS sources is subject to independent examination, and potential witnesses are freed of the danger of prosecution if they speak, the existence of an SAS rescue mission remains a mystery - one of many in the secret 26-year history of the Balibo incident.

Jill Jolliffe is the author of Cover-Up: the inside story of the Balibo Five (Scribe Publications).

The Age December 8, 2001

Leaders cryptic on SAS claims


A former defence minister in the Whitlam government, Bill Morrison, has left open the possibility of an SAS operation to evacuate the Balibo Five from the border area of East Timor in October, 1975.

Morrison said that although he was unaware of such a mission, his approval would not have been strictly necessary. "One would like to think so, but I think certain defence force ministers aren't always fully informed of the movement of units," he said when asked if he knew of such a mission.

He told The Age that there was often a gap between principle and reality when it came to ministerial approval.

In a carefully-worded response about reports that an SAS mission may have been initiated in an attempt to extricate the journalists, Morrison said: "It is extraordinary that a unit would be there and I certainly wasn't aware of their presence. No request was made of me and no decision came from me.

"I had no information ... if there were any major SAS groups there I didn't know about it and I didn't authorise a taskforce."

Intelligence experts have argued that any covert SAS operation into East Timor would normally have been authorised by then prime minister Gough Whitlam, or by Morrison.

Whitlam, 85, responded to questions submitted to him about the existence of such a mission with one sentence: "I never heard that such a mission was proposed or had occurred." He declined to comment further.

Recent research on the deaths of Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie has revealed that on October 13, 1975, three days before Indonesian forces attacked Balibo, Australian diplomats in Jakarta had been given detailed advance plans for the Indonesian attack.

This knowledge was withheld from the public as well as from Australia's closest Western allies - the United States, Britain and New Zealand - as is indicated on relevant cables by the code AUSTEO: "Australian eyes only."

The journalists were killed in Balibo at dawn on October 16 as they filmed Indonesian forces attacking with warships, artillery, helicopter gunships and regular infantry troops. Morrison said that at the time he had no knowledge that the journalists were in the remote border town waiting to film the Indonesian invasion.

"I certainly wasn't aware that the Balibo Five were in East Timor," he said. "You might recall that before this we (the Whitlam government) had taken out quite a lot of Australians. Some journalists then entered illegally."

He said he was unaware that Australian diplomat John Starey had informed the government on October 9 that Greg Shackleton of Channel 7 and his crew were on their way to East Timor, after he met them in Darwin's Travelodge hotel before their departure.

Documents released recently (October 15) under the Freedom of Information Act contain evidence to the 1999 Sherman inquiry by Edward Howes, a former clerk of the secret Office Of Current Intelligence. He testified that records of radio intercepts from East Timor had been hand-delivered to Whitlam and other senior government officials in October, 1975.

He said the intercepts reported when the five journalists arrived in East Timor from Australia and when they reached Balibo, described the house they camped in and gave details of their deaths, all within hours of those events.

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