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Subject: ABC: Defence accused of attempting to stop critical book

Defence accused of attempting to stop critical book

AM - Thursday, 13 October , 2005 09:12:33

Reporter: Nick McKenzie

Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the Independence of East Timor  

PETER CAVE: The Defence Force is being accused by one of its own of misusing national security and secrecy laws to stop the publication of a book, because it was deemed overly critical of the Federal Government.

AM has learnt that Major Clinton Fernandes has complained to the Defence Inspector General that the Government was behind efforts to stop him publishing a book about East Timor's road to independence. And while that attempt failed, he's complained that his career has since been sabotaged.

In letters obtained by the ABC, Major Fernandes accuses senior Army figures of intimidation and ignoring his assertion that he wrote the book in an entirely personal capacity and relied only on open sources.

Nick McKenzie reports.

NICK MCKENZIE: In 2004, Major Clinton Fernandes completed a four year PhD project the Army had approved. He approached a publisher, who in turn asked him to turn his PhD thesis into a book.

He completed the manuscript of Reluctant Saviour, an extended essay on Australia's role in East Timor's struggle for independence, and sent his Army superiors a copy.

Major Fernandes also sent an assertion that the book relied solely on publicly available information.

The resulting correspondence between Major Fernandes and some of the Army's most senior officers became increasingly heated and it ultimately prompted the 36-year-old major to complain to the Defence Force's Inspector General that the Army had inappropriately invoked national security and information secrecy laws to stall or stop him publishing the book.

He alleges this was done because of concerns the book was highly critical of the Government and because the Government influenced the actions of the Army hierarchy.

The ABC has obtained some of the letters that formed the basis of Major Fernandes' complaint.

In an initial letter, dated the third September last year, the Deputy Chief of the Army, Major General Ian Gordon, tells Fernandes he must adhere to defence policy on the publication of material of a political nature.

Major Fernandes responds that he's done so.

Words of CLINTON FERNANDES: The book is a private, non-military and scholarly activity undertaken as a private citizen. All material states that I am a Melbourne-based historian. No reference is made to my position in the Defence Force.

NICK MCKENZIE: Two weeks later the Chief of the Army, Peter Lay, wrote to Major Fernandes, asking him not to publish the book because:

Words of PETER LAY: Your book is at times overly critical of Government policy. While you are entitled to such a view, I don't think it is professional to express them in public or print.

NICK MCKENZIE: But the letter also notes the Army could not prevent the book being published. Three days after that, a month after the Army received the manuscript, and just over a week before its publishing deadline, Major Fernandes received another letter, again from the Deputy Chief of the Army. It refers to Major Fernandes' time in the Army's Intelligence Corps in the late 1990s and raises concerns about his access to sensitive information about East Timor.

The letter then refers to laws about prejudicing national security and disclosing confidential information.

Words of PETER LAY: Section 79 of the Crimes Act makes it a criminal offence to disclose classified information without authorisation. In addition, Section 70 makes it a criminal offence to publish information.

Your manuscript is not cleared to be published. Defence will raise any particular concerns with you once the review is completed.

NICK MCKENZIE: Major Fernandes' response accuses the Defence Force of intimidation and harassment.

Words of CLINTON FERNANDES: My book uses information only in the public domain. The threatening statements are individually intimidatory. The intimidatory effect is very clear when the letters are considered cumulatively.

NICK MCKENZIE: AM has obtained an internal letter from the Defence Department to the Army regarding Major Fernandes' book. This internal document raises no concerns about breaches of national security and critically, it was sent to the Army almost three weeks before the Army raised its concerns about national security and information secrecy laws.

In the letter, Ron Benighton, the Defence Department's Deputy Secretary of Intelligence and Security states that:

Words of RON BENIGHTON: Major Fernandes' manuscript has been examined by the defence intelligence agencies and DFAT, and while it is strongly critical of the Government and especially Foreign Minister Downer and DFAT, there is no basis to preclude publication on grounds of national security.

In relation to his use of classified material, Major Fernandes appears to rely carefully only on information that has already been published in the press, or other open sources.

NICK MCKENZIE: Another Army document, a point-by-point deconstruction of the book focuses on political criticisms.

For instance it states:

"Page 36 contains an implied criticism of the Howard Government. Page 45 to 55 contains criticisms of Mr Downer."

Despite the advice from the Army that he may be in breach of national security laws and thus face criminal charges, Major Fernandes decided to go ahead and publish Reluctant Saviour. It was published in early October last year.

Apart from a failed attempt to censure Major Fernandes, there's been no other official action taken by the Army in connection with the book.

Indeed, students at the Defence Force Academy are now encouraged to read it. But Major Fernandes has told the Defence Force watchdog he's still being targeted.

He's alleged that he was forced to move inter-state to fill a high priority vacancy, which had already been filled when he arrived.

To fight the ultimately unsuccessful effort to discipline him, Major Fernandes supplied the Army with an opinion from a Professor of Ethics at Melbourne University. After he'd reviewed the Army's letters and its policy, Professor Tony Coady concluded the Army's actions were not based on genuine concerns about conduct, but rather a desire not to annoy its political masters.

Indeed, one of Major Fernandes' complaints suggests that the Professor's finding fits into a pattern of earlier treatment he received in the Army.

He was part of a group of officials, including former Lieutenant Colonel Lance Collins, investigated for the alleged leaking of information in the late 90s about East Timor.

The then Captain Fernandes was suspended. When he was eventually reinstated he was moved into Personnel, where he's been for the last four years. In that time, he's been promoted to major, but according to his complaint, it hasn't stopped him being mistreated, with actions Major Fernandes claims crossed the line when he moved to turn his PhD into a book.

PETER CAVE: Clinton Fernandes declined to speak to AM about his complaints or his book. In response to a list of detailed questions, the Defence Department told AM it could not comment about the matter because it is the subject of an internal defence review. The Inspector General of the ADF also told AM he was unable to comment on an open complaint.

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