Subject: SMH: Murder in Balibo [E.Timor]: What Our Spies Knew

Sydney Morning Herald February 14, 2002

Murder in Balibo: what our spies knew

How much did the Australian Government know about plans for an attack by Indonesian forces which would result in the death of five Australian-based newsmen? Hamish McDonald and Desmond Ball analyse new evidence concerning the affair.

A question has tantalised bereaved families for more than a quarter of a century: how much did Australian spies know at the time about the killing of five Australian-based television newsmen at Balibo in East Timor.


The story so far ...

· Indonesia launched its first major military assault against the then Portuguese colony of East Timor on October 16, 1975, using special forces posing as Timorese partisans. Five Australian-based TV newsmen from Channel 9 and Channel 7 were killed that morning in the border town of Balibo. The two Australians, two Britons and one New Zealander were aged between 21 and 29.

· The Indonesian Government later said the journalists were caught in crossfire between pro-Indonesian partisans and the Timorese independence movement Fretilin. Subsequent evidence, much of it from Timorese close to the attack, has suggested they were shot dead after surrendering.

· Canberra has long been accused of hiding its knowledge of Indonesian culpability, and more recently of failing to act on its advance knowledge of the attack to make sure Australian citizens and residents were protected. Several inquiries by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and two official inquiries by former National Crimes Authority chief Tom Sherman, have failed to quell these doubts.

· In 1999 Indonesia handed East Timor back to the United Nations after a vote for independence. In 2000, the DFAT archives on Timor (1974-76) were opened, revealing that Canberra was briefed by Indonesian intelligence sources about the Balibo attack three days ahead.

· In January 2001last year, following a seven-month investigation, UN civilian police investigators recommended the prosecution of a former Indonesian minister, General Yunus Yosfiah, and two others who had been members of the attacking force at Balibo. No action has been taken by UN prosecutors.


A new and so far secret report by the Federal Government's Inspector- General of Intelligence and Security, Bill Blick, tries to answer that question. It contains all the intercepted Indonesian military signals referring to the Balibo deaths that the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) has in its records. (The DSD, our biggest and most important intelligence service, is the same agency under fire this week over the intercepted messages from the Tampa after it rescued 438 refugees last August.)

The new report confirms DSD was picking up references to the dead newsmen in the days following the October 16, 1975, covert attack on Balibo in which they died.

However, Blick has found nothing to show that DSD intercepted Indonesian military radio messages referring to the five newsmen or showing intent to eliminate them before the attack, or that any intercepts seen as important, were withheld from distribution.

In our book, Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra (2000), we included information from two sources that DSD had monitored an exchange several hours before the attack, in which an Indonesian officer in Timor had raised the presence of foreign journalists at Balibo and had been told by his commander, Major-General Benny Murdani, that "we can't have any witnesses" and the reply came that "we have already taken care of that".

Because, according to former concerned officials, this intercept had not been circulated through DSD's normal distribution channels at the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO, now called the Defence Intelligence Organisation) we concluded it had been withheld - to prevent any attempt at rescuing the newsmen and thereby blowing DSD's secret methods.

We concluded it was this intercept which two legal officers with the 1977-78 Hope royal commission into the intelligence services, Ian Cunliffe and George Brownbill, had been shown by "a young person" during a visit to the Shoal Bay DSD station near Darwin.

In 1999-2000, the two ex-Hope commission staffers detailed this intercept - which they believed showed an intention to eliminate the newsmen - to the former National Crime Commission head Tom Sherman in the second of his two inquiries into the Balibo affair.

In his report, Sherman played down this intercept's significance, suggesting it was based on a mistranslation of the Indonesian-language original that would have been corrected by "more experienced" language specialists at DSD headquarters in Melbourne.

While our book was in preparation, Cunliffe was shown the draft chapter detailing our conclusions, and said he did not recommend any changes. However Cunliffe and Brownbill, in letters to the magazine Quadrant and directly to Blick, have said subsequently this was not the intercept they were shown at Shoal Bay.

What Blick has discovered is an intercepted radio exchange about the role of journalists between an Indonesian officer on the Indonesian side of the Timor border and Murdani in Jakarta over the two days before the attack [see table].

The times of these signals are not noted, but for routine items a time lag of 24 hours in reporting was acceptable. The intercepted exchange was not reported until the Shoal Bay DSD station sent it out on a non-urgent basis mid-afternoon Eastern Australian time on Thursday, October 16, several hours after the killings.

Possibly this exchange between the Atambua commander and Murdani was given a far more sinister twist in the telling by our informants, neither of whom is now accessible. In which case, parts of the cover-up conclusions made in Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra are weakened. Possibly, however, there was an alternative version of the Atambua-Murdani messages in the files at a time closer to the events.

We cannot now check, except through hazy 26-year-old recollections of DSD and JIO personnel from the period. Blick has found that DSD destroyed its vast and irreplaceable archive of "raw" intelligence intercepts and working drafts of decryptions and translations, made since World War II, when it moved from Melbourne to Canberra over 1992-94 - possibly in breach of the Archives Act which includes prison terms for unauthorised destruction of official records.

Even the more innocuous version found by Blick might have alerted Canberra to the impending danger to Australian citizens had it been more promptly reported by DSD.

Foreign Affairs and Defence officials in Darwin, and an Australian Army medical team in Dili, had met some of the newsmen on their way into East Timor and some had discussed their plans to travel to the border.

By October 14 there were no foreign journalists on the Indonesian side of the Timor border around Atambua. The Australian embassy in Jakarta, as released documents show, had been fully briefed on the planned covert offensive at Balibo and Maliana. Murdani's ban on coverage could only have affected foreign newsmen on the other side of the frontier - and how was he proposing to enforce it?

As for the intercept vividly recalled by Cunliffe and (according to Sherman) in greater detail by Brownbill, we still do not know what they remember it saying, except that Blick has reported it was a message sent soon after the newsmen were killed.

However, the recollected text of this message has been written down by Brownbill in a statement to Sherman on January 15, 1999.

But neither Blick nor Sherman before him has been able to locate a record of this intercept in the intelligence archives. It is not included in the list of Balibo-related intercepts that Blick has given in his report to the defence minister.

Blick has not located the "young person" who showed the intercept to the Hope commission team. If an intercept that Brownbill has said was "on his conscience" for two decades is missing, what else has been lost from the archives?

DSD also emerges as having been far less capable in 1975 than many experts credited it. The listed intercepts are all, or mostly, derived from Indonesian high-frequency (HF) radio signals, the kind used to transmit mostly Morse-coded messages over long distances, such as between the West Timor capital, Kupang, and Jakarta. HF signals, which bounce off the ionosphere and scatter in many directions, are relatively easy to intercept.

There are relatively few intercepts if any of very high frequency (VHF) messages, as used on portable field radios by small Indonesian army units, and which normally require line-of-sight reception by intending signals intelligence monitors.

DSD did not, from what it gave to Blick, intercept any Fretilin communications referring to Balibo or the journalists. Yet Timorese partisans used by the Indonesian force to monitor Fretilin radio signals have said they picked up several references to Australian and Portuguese TV crews being with Fretilin in the area around Balibo. Murdani said in a 1995 interview that the Indonesian force knew of the Australian news teams from intercepted radio messages, which he claimed the newsmen were sending to help Balibo's Fretilin defenders.

Balibo's distance from Darwin and its location on the north of Timor's central mountain chain would, in normal atmospheric conditions, have made it difficult for DSD listeners at Shoal Bay, or at Cabarlah, near Toowoomba, to pick up VHF traffic from the Indonesians on October 16 - which, according to various Indonesian and Timorese accounts, was certainly occurring.

However, several sources involved with the Timor crisis in 1975 believed the RAN had a destroyer or submarine near Timor to pick up VHF communications at such sensitive times. Indeed the Indonesians complained about the presence of the submarine HMAS Oxley near Timor a week later. What do the Navy's records show?

DSD may also have had access in 1975 to the data from the Rhyolite spy satellites which US agencies were then beginning to employ over South-East Asia, and which were controlled from Pine Gap. Such satellites give an effective line-of-sight perch for receiving VHF transmissions. Blick does not appear to have asked US agencies what material they might have on the Balibo attack.

A surprise in the Balibo intercepts located by Blick is that they put Canberra's knowledge of the newsmen's deaths back by a day from what several former intelligence officials recall.

It was not until Friday October 17, the day after the Balibo attack, that a stream of intercepts indicated that four or five Australians had been killed and Defence officials went to Parliament House to inform ministers in the Whitlam Government.

This upholds the denial by Gough Whitlam that he was told of the deaths on October 16 and that, knowing this, he and other government leaders went to a dinner for the visiting Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, at Government House that night. But from October 17 the Government's knowledge was withheld from bereaved families and the public on national security grounds - and to avoid diplomatic problems with Jakarta.

Is this the end of the story? Probably not, as there are still some gaps, now narrower, to keep alive speculation that somewhere in Australian or US archives or the memory of former officials still more information lurks. And of course the Indonesians have yet to open up.

LISTENERS IN THE SOUTH A transcript of the secret Indonesian signals intercepted by the DSD concerning the Balibo killings

Tuesday October 14 (no time noted): The commander in Atambua (the main border town in West Timor) to Major-General Benny Murdani, military intelligence chief, in Jakarta: Are domestic journalists permitted to cover all our activities? I have given directions. Please reply urgently.

Wednesday October 15 (no time noted): Reply by Murdani to Atambua: It should be made clear that all journalists, both domestic and foreign, are prohibited from covering all our activities. Murdani said exceptions were made for journalists nominated by the operation commander, whom he listed. A report of this exchange was circulated by DSD Shoal Bay directly to various addressees mid-afternoon Canberra time on October 16, i.e., after the attack.

Thursday October 16, 9.14am: DSD intercepts radio message from Kupang to Jakarta: Please be informed that at 0645 [0845 Canberra time] Balibo fell to us. No Indonesian casualties reported. DSD reported this about 4pm.

Friday October 17, 2am: DSD intercepts report on Balibo attack listing four enemy dead. This was circulated early morning, and included in the daily "Situation Report" produced by the Office of Current Intelligence in the Joint Intelligence Organisation in Canberra, at 11am.

October 17, 11.40am: DSD Shoal Bay intercepts part of message saying five Australians killed. Report circulated at 1.30pm. The JIO director, Gordon Jockel, goes to Parliament House to inform the Defence Minister, Bill Morrison.

October 17, 3.12 pm: DSD reports another intercept (no time noted) saying Balibo had fallen at 0755 the previous day, and listed four Europeans killed.

October 17, mid-afternoon: DSD reports intercept of a Kupang-Jakarta signal, listing four Australians probably assisting Fretilin. Included aid workers, activists, but not Balibo Five.

October 17, 4.30pm: DSD circulates report of intercepted Kupang-Jakarta message (no time noted): Among the casualties at Balibo were four Australians. All traces have been removed.

Sunday October 19: DSD intercepts urgent message from Jakarta to field commander requesting a comprehensive report on the four Europeans killed, including identification.

Monday October 20, 11 am: OCI issues first report on the killings in the daily situation report. Also includes report in that morning's Kompas newspaper in Jakarta, about deaths.

Tuesday October 21: DSD reports intercept of signal mentioning media inquiries about Balibo Five, listing names of missing newsmen for first time.

Wednesday October 22: DSD intercepts Indonesian signal quoting statement issued by Fretilin military commander Rogerio Lobato on October 16: This very day Balibo fell into the hands of the Indonesians. Of the 57 Fretilin defenders only 7 escaped. Nine white men missing, including four Portuguese TV crew and five Australians. 


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