The Bulletin [with Newsweek] April 30, 2003 -cover story-
When ASIO was approached to bug the parliamentary offices of a Labor frontbencher, it faced an unexpected dilemma.
Perhaps one of ASIO's smartest actions was refusing the Federal Police's request to bug Laurie Brereton's parliamentary office. John Lyons has the story.
When Australia's national police force and intelligence service discuss bugging the office of a leading politician, something is in the air. In this country, such a development is virtually unprecedented.
But this is exactly what happened in December 1999. The target was Labor hardman Laurie Brereton and, when The Bulletin informed him last week of the scope of the operation, he was outraged. "This has been a disgraceful attempt to interfere with my privilege as a member of parliament," he said. "I now see it as an attempt to prevent me from doing my job as Labor's then foreign affairs spokesman. The government in effect set a police force upon me and my parliamentary office. It was highly intimidatory."
The saga began when The Bulletin published leaked documents from the Defence Intelligence Organisation showing the government was aware of the connection between East Timor's murderous militia and Indonesia's military. For months, officials had pushed the Indonesian line - the militia were "rogue elements". But these documents detailed how the militia were instruments of Kopassus, Indonesia's most brutal soldiers.
The government was embarrassed and wanted to find the source of the leak. The Australian Federal Police was commissioned. Brereton had run hard exposing the Indonesian military and his office became a focus of the investigation. But the AFP had a problem: under the Telecommunications Interception Act, they could not obtain permission to place the phone taps. So they approached ASIO to see whether it could help them.
The plan was to install a listening device in the Parliament House switchboard and listen to the calls of Brereton, his adviser Dr Philip Dorling and his receptionist. Their primary interest was Dorling. They wanted to find out which journalists or intelligence officers he spoke to.
ASIO bluntly told the AFP "no" - it was one of the smarter things the agency has done. Had it gone ahead, and the media got onto it, it would have been Australia's own mini-Watergate. Brereton was not just foreign affairs spokesman but a key Labor strategist. It would have meant John Howard and the Cabinet could have had access to transcripts of all Brereton and Dorling's phone conversations. The government would have known Labor's political strategy.
ASIO told the AFP it was not within its jurisdiction to place the taps. Dennis Richardson later made an official minute of the incident. He documented both the AFP request and ASIO's rejection.
But the plot thickened: in the course of the investigation, it appears recourse was made to intelligence obtained by foreign governments. Because of its sensitivity, some of the investigators looking at Brereton's office formed a secret taskforce and set up an office in the Canberra HQ of the Defence Signals Directorate, Australia's eavesdropping agency.
ASIO's rejection did not deter the AFP. At 6am on the day after the Olympics opening ceremony, they struck. For six hours, they went through every corner of Dorling's home: they climbed into his ceiling, went under the house, went through his computer, through the fridge, through his garbage. They sat in his library looking through his 5000 books. There was only one area they did not search: they drew the line at the cat litter tray.
Dorling was stunned: "It brought home to me what an ugly business politics under this government can be. They were not only trying to take me out but intimidate all public servants in Canberra and shut down any dissent in the bureaucracy."
ASIO's rejection of the bugging request was yet another intriguing example of the interplay between the AFP and ASIO. And an increasingly bitter turf war could prove debilitating. ASIO sent 12 people to Bali after the bombings. Privately, AFP officers are scathing of those ASIO personnel, praising in contrast those from ASIS who knew the area better and had language skills.
But the extent of the AFP's bad-mouthing of their ASIO colleagues is a portent: now is not a good time for two of Australia's terrorism-fighting bodies to be at each other's throats.
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