Subject: James Dunn on the Ordeal of Lieutenant Colonel Lance Collins
Some Comments on the Ordeal of Lieutenant Colonel Lance Collins James Dunn
To most Australians there is something mystifying about cases involving intelligence officers. Because of the very secret nature of the agencies concerned, the issues are seldom satisfactorily resolved in the public mind. There is a lingering suspicion about the role of those commonly called spooks, who have the image of James Bond characters. While we no doubt have agents engaged in furtive espionage activities, today the majority of intelligence officers are involved in more mundane, and by and large more productive activities. Most of them are researchers or analysts, with appropriate academic qualifications, who seek to present governments with balanced, professional assessments. It is the processes between the desks and Government that are prone to political distortion.
I was part of this secret world for several years before I joined our foreign affairs establishment. In the Cold War years we laboured under a conformist anti-communist cloud but still managed a degree of independence, at least in the research and analyst areas in which I worked. Inevitably the fact that intelligence agencies saw their central role as countering the advance of communism impacted on the direction of our work and the way it was presented to those nearer government at the time called 'consumers'. Even though the Cold War is long gone it is evident from recent revelations, including the ordeal of Lieutenant Colonel Lance Collins, that a corruptive element conformism continues to exist, but also to be resisted by the professional analysts.
As it happens I got to know Colonel Collins in East Timor in 1999 when he was chief of intelligence for Interfet. At General Cosgrove's suggestion I spent some time with him discussing the local political and cultural scene, and the role of the TNI in the events of 1999. Lance Collins impressed me at once. He had an open and astute mind and, having previously served in sensitive roles, evidently knew a lot about what was behind the campaign of destruction and killing in East Timor that had reduced conditions in the country to what we termed Ground Zero.
From a closer look at this case there is much more to it than meets the eye. Lance Collins was a loyal officer, who was careful not to disclose secrets to me. But he was also a concerned officer who was troubled at some of the restraints he had to work under. Later, when I worked as a UN expert trying to unravel the events of that time, I learnt why Collins was so concerned. He was aware from his earlier role that Australian authorities known long before the horrendous events of September 1999 that the so-called militia was an Indonesian military operation, organized by TNI generals, and that a massive violent operation against the East Timorese had been planned. With that knowledge our Government could have prepared the UN mission for the wave of violence that engulfed those of us on the ground when the results of the plebiscite were announced. They did not, and it could be argued that they have a measure of blame for the systematic killing, the deportations and the wanton destruction that was to follow. It also raises question about the usefulness of these agencies if their end-products are not put to good use.
The Interfet interventions offered an opportunity for on the ground investigation of those responsible these atrocities. Once in East Timor, however, Collins and other InterFET officers encountered the same frustrations. They were discouraged or even ordered not to carry out investigations into the TNI role in these crimes against humanity, at a time when the UN had few personnel in East Timor (at that time Untaet existed in name only). One concerned officer became so distressed that he subsequently had a breakdown, while others, like Colonel Collins were deeply troubled by an official policy that seemed to contradict the spirit of Australia's commendable decision to lead the intervention. It was clear that Australia had not yet abandoned its earlier accommodation of the Suharto regime's military adventures.
In the circumstances Lance Collins did what he could. He should have been commended for the key role he played during the Interfet interregnum (as were many of his colleagues) but it is now clear that he was passed over - for upholding the high standards we are supposed to observe when we are implementing United Nations missions. His offence was to criticize Australia's opposition to the exposure of the cruel conduct of Indonesia's notorious military. On the face of it his treatment since he returned to Australian in early 2000 is nothing short of scandalous.
When I accepted a UN commission to investigate crimes against humanity in East Timor, I was also to meet the same kind of coolness, this time from our diplomatic mission in Dili. During my work I was generously helped by US, Canadian, Portuguese, Irish and New Zealand missions, but Australian diplomats kept a discreet distance, professionally and socially. Occasionally, however, I would encounter our diplomats at receptions. At one of these the head of the mission remarked that the work I was engaged in would merely 'open a can of worms'.
These experiences amount to revealing episodes in the sorry record of Australian policy towards East Timor and Indonesia. In 1999 I hoped that our policy of accommodating the Indonesian military harsh operations which ought now to be designated acts of state terrorism - might be coming to an end. It clearly has not. Indeed, thanks in no small part to our compliant policies, the TNI has regained much of the ground it lost under President Wahid. Its operations in Aceh suggest that nothing has changed. And our diplomatic accommodation has helped those TNI commanders responsible for atrocities to escape prosecution. Australia joined with some other nations in supporting the Indonesian tribunal, when it was patently obvious that such a tribunal would merely offer a virtual escape route to those war criminals whom, unlike Iraqi generals, it was our special obligation to bring to justice. The desired outcome is not just about justice for East Timor. It is also about supporting Indonesia's democratic reform, the ultimate success of which is a matter of great importance to Australia. As things stand, the progress of democratisation has has been effectively obstructed by TNI generals, some of whom should be sharing the fate of Iraqi officers now awaiting trial. Unfortunately many Indonesians, and some of our politicians, diplomats and military commanders still believe that the Republic's national integrity can only be maintained with the help of bayonets, a view strongly held by Kopassus commanders in the past.
It is encouraging to know that there are analysts like Lance Collins who question this simplistic view. He has served us well and deserves our support.
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