Subject: Australia Spies misread East Timor PM

Herald Sun

Spies misread East Timor PM

Ian McPhedran


ON the very day East Timor's ex-prime minister Mari Alkatiri resigned, an elite government spy agency issued a top-secret report saying he would not quit.

The report by the Office of National Assessments was compiled just a few hours before Dr Alkatiri fell on his sword.

ONA is an Australian intelligence-analysis agency that reports on global issues directly to Prime Minister John Howard and senior ministers.

On June 24, ONA issued its daily "product", which included an assessment of Timor's political crisis.

Well-placed sources said the document was written within four hours of Dr Alkatiri's announcement that he was quitting.

The Herald Sun believes that several people who read it concluded that he would not resign.

ONA analyses and interprets intelligence from various sources, including Australian spies, electronic surveillance, media reports and material from foreign governments.

In East Timor a number of Australian spies from the Australian Secret Intelligence Service operate under cover as diplomats.

Despite mounting evidence Dr Alkatiri would agree to President Xanana Gusmao's request to go, Australia's top analysts insisted he would stay.

Australia has had more than 2000 soldiers and police in East Timor since late May.

Despite that, the head of ONA, former diplomat Peter Varghese, did not even mention East Timor in an 18-page speech he gave on Australia's strategic outlook to a major conference just two days after Dr Alkatiri's resignation.

"In strategic assessments, as in life, it sometimes pays to be humble," Mr Varghese told his high-powered audience. "And it always pays to be exposed to analysis from outside government."

Mr Varghese said strategic assessments must "convey a sense of salience, likelihood and consequence, to identify which contingencies might matter the most, and to define their probable contours".

According to official documents, ONA judges its performance in terms of the "uniqueness, timeliness and responsiveness, relevance and accuracy".

In 1997, a secret and damning ONA assessment of Pacific island leaders was leaked.

The dossier described some as corrupt drunks and wife-beaters.

ONA was strongly criticised last year by the Flood inquiry into Australia's intelligence agencies and their failings over Iraq's weapons program.

It found ONA relied on "thin" intelligence and had systemic weaknesses.

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