Subject: SMH/Balibo: Ridiculous efforts to protect museum-piece intelligence methods

also: The Australian: Papers on Balibo deaths destroyed

The Sydney Morning Herald Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ridiculous efforts to protect museum-piece intelligence methods

Hamish McDonald, Asia Pacific Editor

AUSTRALIA'S spooks are often aghast at the way highly classified intelligence material and techniques leak out into the public domain in the United States.

For example, a year or two into the "war on terror" it became quite widely known that US agencies were using speech recognition software on huge volumes of mobile and satellite phone traffic to pick out the voices of known al-Qaeda operatives, some of whom had conveniently given samples on Al-Jazeera TV.

But maybe this reflects a recognition in the great American fountainhead of innovation that technologies are evolving rapidly, and that any tech-savvy person could have worked out the existence of this capability from published knowledge.

Contrast this with the current picture in courtroom No. 2 in the NSW Coroner's Court, where an inquest into the deaths in October 1975 of the Balibo Five newsmen in East Timor is under way.

Many now rather aged former officials in Canberra's defence, foreign affairs and intelligence echelons are being quizzed about their memories. In the past two days, the inquest has focused on the Government's archive of intercepted Indonesian military signals relating to the deaths.

The intercepts that have been presented are handled as though Australia's very existence depends on them being kept secret.

Each bit of paper is kept in its own manilla envelope, in the briefcase of an officer of the Defence Signals Directorate who sits at the back of the court.

When one needs to be shown to witnesses, he hands it to the Crown counsel assisting the coroner, Mark Tedeschi, QC, who is sworn to secrecy. Only the witness and the deputy state coroner, Dorelle Pinch, can then read it. Its content cannot be mentioned in open court. Counsel for other interested parties, like bereaved family, have limited access and are thus hobbled in their cross-examinations.

When a witness strays into sensitive areas - like decryption of Indonesian signals - up jumps the senior counsel for the Federal Government, Alan Robertson, to head off a line of questioning.

On Monday, when the inquest starts hearing a number of former Defence Signals Directorate and other intelligence personnel, the inquest will probably get even more tightly constrained.

Written statements are heavily blacked out, and it is understood the Commonwealth lawyers are arguing for all the evidence to be heard in camera, even possibly with the state reporting staff and other court aides replaced by federal personnel.

All this to protect intercepts that evidently do not include the bombshell produced on Thursday by the two former Hope royal commission staffers George Brownbill and Ian Cunliffe - that they were shown an intercept in 1977 at the directorate's Shoal Bay station indicating the newsmen were deliberately killed on orders from the Indonesian command.

It will be argued that more than the content, the security blanket protects "sources and methods". But those in use in 1975 are almost as historic as the World War II Enigma operation, now the subject of films and novels.

The Indonesian special forces in Timor were using morse code radio and Swiss electro-mechanical encryption machines not unlike the Enigma sets. A switch to satellite data transmission and computerised encryption took place more than 15 years ago.

Shoal Bay, with its operators in headsets transcribing morse signals and bulky telex machines, was a different era.

That it was listening to Indonesian signals was no secret - even the targets used to send Christmas greetings on air to "all our friends at Shoal Bay".

Certainly there are still some intelligence secrets from the late 1970s that are still validly protected, but these should not be among them - or at least the Commonwealth should have to argue the case, perhaps to an independent panel or bench.

As it seems to be heading, the inquest will end without answering the puzzle of the Brownbill-Cunliffe testimony, and will leave allegations of a cover-up continuing to hover.

There is no sign yet of a concerted effort to verify the source of the intercept shown to the two officials, by interviewing all directorate personnel on duty at Shoal Bay at the time. But after the strong testimony of the two men, it can no longer be dismissed as a probable hoax, mistake or other canard.

This should be of interest to all government officials in charge of security, not least the new Secretary of the Defence Department, Nick Warner, who is in the prime position to prod the intelligence community into full co-operation.

In 1998, while in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, he was charged with providing the second Sherman inquiry all intelligence material relevant to the Balibo case. What he showed Tom Sherman evidently did not include anything like this intercept. Verifying he was not hoodwinked by some informal conspiracy to bury this intercept, or dispelling any charges he was part of it, should add a personal impetus.

The intelligence methods of Balibo belong in a museum. The ridiculous effort to protect them will only make it harder for the current intelligence generation to make a case for secrecy.


The Australian Saturday, Febraury 24, 2007

Papers on Balibo deaths destroyed

A GOVERNMENT intelligence chief destroyed documents revealing the deaths of Australian-based journalists in East Timor in 1975 to stop news of the killings spreading.

The claims, made at the inquest into the death of one of the so-called Balibo Five, came amid allegations that former prime minister Gough Whitlam and two senior ministers knew about the group's fate within days.

The inquest was told how top-secret details about the five deaths began flowing into the Office of Current Intelligence on October 17, 1975 -- the day after they died in Balibo.

The Whitlam government delayed confirming the deaths until reports emerged in Jakarta's press on October 20, ostensibly because it wanted to protect the secret sources and operations of the Defence Signals Directorate.

Former OCI senior intelligence analyst Gary Klintworth told the inquest in Sydney yesterday that he saw details about the deaths on October 17 in a signals intercept picked up overnight by DSD from the Indonesian military in East Timor.

It said: "Among the dead are four white men. What are we going to do with the bodies?"

Dr Klintworth said he immediately assumed the intercept was referring to the journalists because he knew they were in Balibo and the Indonesian military was poised to attack.

He quickly wrote a briefing note on the deaths for an internal OCI highlights memo that day.

"Australian journalists have been killed at Balibo," the memo said. "There was a report that four white men were killed and instructions were sought as to what to do with the bodies."

But he told Glebe Coroners Court yesterday when he handed the memo to OCI deputy chief John Bennetts that day he was ordered to destroy it, along with a batch of up to 25 copies.

Dr Klintworth described the move as unprecedented.

"I think he (Mr Bennetts) indicated that wasn't the kind of information that should be distributed around Canberra," he said. "He didn't want this information to get out."

Dr Klintworth said OCI did not want news spreading about how the Australian government was eavesdropping on the Indonesian military.

He said good relations between the two countries was of "paramount" importance.

Official government reports since 1975 have said Brian Peters, Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Malcolm Rennie and Tony Stewart were killed in crossfire between Indonesian forces and Fretilin troops in Balibo.

However, the inquest has heard claims the Whitlam and Fraser governments lied about the deaths and knew the men were killed on orders from Indonesian forces.

Earlier, OCI's former chief Rowen Osborn said he always assumed Mr Whitlam, his defence and foreign ministers and their department heads were told within days about the DSD intercept regarding the journalists' deaths.

Mr Osborn said he and Mr Bennetts prepared three special reports on the deaths and sent them to a highly restricted group, including Mr Whitlam, his foreign and defence ministers and their department heads.

The inquest continues.

--------------------------------- Joyo Indonesia News Service

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