Subject: SMH: Difference of opinions (Collins)

Sydney Morning Herald

Difference of opinions

May 8, 2004

Even if Lance Collins was right about the doctoring of intelligence on East Timor, he may be wrong about who did the doctoring. Deborah Snow reports.

The then head of the Defence Department, Paul Barratt, was angry and perplexed in late December 1998. He had just learned of Prime Minister John Howard's letter to the Indonesian President, B.J.Habibie, suggesting he grant autonomy to East Timor in advance of an eventual act of self-determination.

Howard's letter overturned 23 years of Australian acceptance of Jakarta's illegal occupation, even though the Prime Minister indicated he hoped the Timorese would choose to remain part of Indonesia. The letter held profound implications for the Australian Defence Department. Yet neither Barratt, nor the then defence minister, John Moore, nor the military chief, Admiral Chris Barrie, had warning of it.

One senior source recalls Barratt saying he fronted the then head of the Prime Minister's Department, Max Moore Wilton, telling him: "I hope they [the PM's advisers] are aware it will be our people coming home in body bags, not theirs."

Consternation in government circles was compounded when Habibie decided to announce a referendum on East Timorese independence almost immediately - without the long lead time envisaged by Howard. Australian policymakers were plunged into panic. Advertisement Advertisement

Habibie's weakness as an interim president in the wake of Soeharto's fall was a core concern. It was uncertain how much the infamous Indonesian armed forces, the TNI, were really under his control. Defence in particular could not see that the Indonesian military would give East Timor up without a fight, no matter what Habibie said. In February 1999, Barratt, together with Barrie, went to cabinet to urge some quiet planning for an increase in the army's deployment readiness.

At the same time the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was just as adamant there should be no talk of a peacekeeping force. Insiders say the head of DFAT, Ashton Calvert, was fearful that even canvassing the option could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He felt it could drag Australia into a long-term responsibility for East Timorese security which it could not afford.

Another argument was that overly tough talk, or even evidence that Australia was mobilising, could trigger a coup against Habibie, or force Habibie to adopt a more hardline position to fend off an army revolt. Was this kind of thinking "pro-Jakarta" as some allege? Or was it a fundamentally different take on where the balance of Australia's long-term national interests lay?

Regardless of these differences of approach in early 1999, Defence and DFAT were united in advising cabinet of one thing: under no circumstances could Australia contemplate going in to East Timor without Indonesian consent. They said it would amount to an invasion, as Australia's de jure recognition of East Timor's incorporation into Indonesia had not been withdrawn. More pointedly, Australia would lose if the Indonesians resisted.

"We did not have the military power to invade Indonesia," a former top Defence adviser says. "If we met armed resistance to landing a brigade (some 5000 troops), only 1500 of whom might be frontline troops, we knew we'd have a lot of casualties and the mission would fail."

This was the tense and somewhat schizophrenic policy atmosphere at the top as, deep in the bowels of Defence intelligence, a group of analysts was picking up intercepts and churning out assessments showing increasingly stark evidence of deep TNI complicity in arming and training anti-independence militias in East Timor.

Included in this network was the intelligence specialist Lieutenant-Colonel Lance Collins, then working for army headquarters in Sydney. As signs of a TNI-backed terrorist campaign mounted, he grew more agitated about what he felt was the "spin" being put on the field intelligence to make it more palatable to a group of "mandarins" uncomfortable about confronting Jakarta.

Collins liaised with, but was not part of, the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO). However, his claims alleging the existence of a "pro-Jakarta" lobby within DIO and other government organs were at the centre of a secret report leaked to The Bulletin. That report, by retired naval captain-turned lawyer Martin Toohey, backed many of Collins's claims.

Toohey and Collins level the strongest accusations at the head of DIO, Frank Lewincamp, which include claims (vehemently denied by Lewincamp) that DIO "muted" its intelligence on Timor, and that when Collins complained, Lewincamp initiated a payback against Collins which resulted in Collins unjustly becoming the subject of a police investigation. Toohey hit the airwaves last week calling for Lewincamp to be sacked. He and Collins are also calling for a royal commission into failures inside the intelligence agencies, amid claims of politicisation of intelligence advice.

It's possible to make a strong case for a judicial inquiry into the relationship between the Government and its intelligence advisers, particularly after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But in relation to Lewincamp, there are anomalies in the Toohey report and Collins's accusations that raise questions about whether they have zeroed in on the right target. (Two subsequent legal assessments of Toohey's report have produced one agreeing with it, and another seriously questioning its forensic standards.)

The Herald has spoken to one witness who is markedly unhappy with the way he has been quoted in the Toohey report and at least two others are said to have reservations about whether the Toohey report accurately reflected the flavour of their testimony.

The conundrum is that while Collins claims DIO was "muting" its intelligence on Timor during 1999 to downplay the role of the TNI, many other sources maintain DIO - of all the government agencies - was playing the straightest bat on what the Indonesian military was up to.

The public record shows a string of leaks to the Australian media during 1999 of DIO material which undercut Government statements at the time that only "rogue" elements of the TNI were involved in backing the militias. The leaked DIO assessments acknowledged greater complicity of the Indonesia armed forces.

In May 2001 an Australian Army captain, Andrew Plunkett, went public on his belief that Australian agencies had not done enough to prevent a vicious massacre of civilians by anti-independence militia at Maliana in East Timor in September, 1999.

He said reports from DIO around the time had been accurate. But he claimed the Australian field intelligence had been "pushed up the chain of command, hosed down and politically wordsmithed by the Asia division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade".

Says one senior military source, "Some people [around Collins] had a problem with the fact the DIO material was not as hard-edged as they would have liked it to be, but I don't believe there was any deliberate whitewashing within DIO. However, it might be a truer claim of DFAT or the Office of National Assessments."

Another factor Toohey did not examine was how far institutional rivalries and "culture wars" between civilian and uniformed personnel inside Defence might have contributed to tensions between Collins and DIO, especially once Lewincamp came to head it. In 1998, Collins was part of a new military organisation, Headquarters Australian Theatre, which had been set up in Sydney. His role was to provide intelligence to support army operations, but he began ranging into strategic areas which DIO regarded as its territory.

As Toohey's report reveals, DIO was having problems with the scope of Collins's Timor assessments as early as mid-1998 - at least a year before Lewincamp got there. At that stage it was headed by Major-General Bill Crews (now head of the RSL) who has told the Herald he was "not aware of any such thing as a pro-Jakarta lobby" inside the organisation.

In May, 1999, the then defence minister, John Moore, and Paul Barratt decided to "civilianise" DIO which had been headed by military men for a decade. They believed DIO's product was substandard and poorly managed. Crews disagreed with the civilianisation policy, and retired. The civilian appointed to take over two months later was Lewincamp.

This attracted hostility from many in the military, who thought a uniformed officer, or at the very least an intelligence professional (which Lewincamp was not) should have been placed in the job. Fears that Lewincamp would bring a new culture into DIO, one more responsive to bureaucratic and political pressures, no doubt fanned the suspicions of Collins and the group around him.

Even without the Collins accusations, it was a torrid time for anyone taking over the organisation. Australia's Interfet expedition to Timor was due to leave within weeks (with Collins accompanying it as chief intelligence officer). There had been an espionage scandal involving a DIO staffer just two months before. A defence intelligence attache in Washington had committed suicide after being accused of showing Australian-only secrets to the Americans. And there were the ongoing leaks of defence intelligence, bringing Lewincamp under intense pressure from ministers to find the source. Even under these conditions, Lewincamp's supporters are adamant he is, and was, not the type to bend to politicians.

But if one thing does emerge indisputably from the Toohey report, it's that five years down the track the whispers and suspicions over who was or was not doctoring intelligence from Timor remain a corrosive element within parts of the military. Collins was not the only one convinced it happened. And for that reason alone, a full-blown judicial inquiry may be the only way of resolving a conflict which otherwise continues to eat away at the morale of Defence's intelligence apparatus.

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