Subject: AU: Messenger dismissed with faint praise

The Weekend Australian

Mike Steketee: Messenger dismissed with faint praise

17apr04

JOHN Howard applied the balm of being reasonable to this week's startling claims about Australian intelligence failures. How much better it would be if he actually did something about them.

Lieutenant-Colonel Lance Collins wrote to him last month with "a short list" of 11 recent stuff-ups, including Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the Bali bombing, the fall of Suharto and independence in East Timor. He asked for a royal commission into the intelligence services.

What Howard did instead was praise Collins as "a distinguished military officer" whose letter would receive a "courteous, comprehensive, detailed" reply. And that will be about it. The Prime Minister effectively dismissed Collins's complaints as just another spat within the intelligence services.

Howard was never going to agree to a royal commission, especially not in an election year. But neither could he shoot the messenger - not publicly anyway. Collins is a former deputy director of military intelligence and he was General Peter Cosgrove's choice to run Australian intelligence operations in East Timor. Cosgrove recommended him for promotion to full colonel, describing him as "our most experienced and most competent J2" - the designation for an intelligence officer. Instead he was sidelined to a training position and denied a promotion and the Australian honour he normally would have received for his service in East Timor.

Some of his colleagues may have regarded Collins as "a weird guy", as Captain Martin Toohey said in his report leaked to The Bulletin. But Toohey, the barrister who conducted an investigation into Collins's claims, also described him as "arguably the army's most skilled intelligence analyst". In particular, Toohey said his intelligence assessments were "invariably accurate".

One of those was in July 1998 - more than a year before the ballot that led to independence for East Timor - when he warned of widespread violence organised by the Indonesian military through militia forces. This is exactly what happened, with hundreds of East Timorese killed in the days following the ballot and much of the country put to the torch.

The Government knew what Collins was saying was a possibility. But it did not want to act on it. A report leaked in 1999 showed that at the start of that year the Defence Intelligence Organisation had reported the Indonesian military was arming civilians to sort out pro-independence supporters. Howard on several occasions urged then president Habibie to accept international peacekeepers before the ballot. Habibie would not have a bar of it. Rather than offend the Indonesians, Australia, with the backing of intelligence assessments much more supportive of Jakarta, put its faith in their assurances that they would prevent violence.

More than that, the Government became advocate and apologist for the Indonesian cause, blocking and undermining any suggestions of alternative strategies. The relationship with Indonesia briefly became more important to Australia than that with the US. A military officer in the Australian embassy in Washington, Merv Jenkins, was ticked off for passing Australian intelligence on East Timor to the Americans. Jenkins subsequently committed suicide.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer dismissed Indonesian army links with militia as "rogue elements". He denied there had been policy differences in talks between Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Ashton Calvert and US assistant secretary of state Stanley Roth. Then shadow foreign minister Laurie Brereton produced the documents to prove him wrong. Roth was arguing for a full-scale peacekeeping force and described Australia's position as defeatist. Downer denied American military had approached Australian counterparts about sending forces to East Timor. Brereton produced more documents to prove him wrong. That Downer survived such assaults on his credibility says something about how intent Howard was on sticking with the strategy of supporting Indonesia at all costs.

Yet Howard was misled and mistaken. Australia failed to convince the Indonesians it was in their interest to keep the peace. Instead the violence was essential to the Indonesian strategy to prevent independence, even after 78.5per cent of Timorese had voted in favour of it. It was only international pressure that prevented the Indonesians from overturning the results of the ballot and led to an international peacekeeping force.

Howard since has presented as one of his proudest moments "the achievement of bringing to the people of East Timor the freedom that they had voted for". This is ironic since, as his original letter to Habibie made clear, he did not want an independent Timor any more than a succession of Labor and Liberal prime ministers before him.

It is true that after the ballot Howard led the international effort to send the peacekeeping force Australia had so strenuously opposed beforehand. It is also true the Australian forces acquitted themselves well. But how much more effective would they have been if they had been there before the militia wreaked their devastation?

The standard Canberra response is that this would have been impossible since, without Indonesian agreement, sending forces to Timor would have been an act of war and that Indonesia would have responded to such threats by calling off the ballot. But events after the vote showed just how effective diplomatic pressure on Indonesia could be. The US told Jakarta it was cutting military ties. The International Monetary Fund announced the suspension of an instalment in its rescue package for the Indonesian economy. The World Bank froze its $1 billion aid program to Indonesia. Within days Indonesia agreed to an international peacekeeping force.

Collins has a case when he points to the failures of Australian intelligence. Howard should not get away with just soft-soaping them away.

Mike Steketee is the National affairs editor


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