Subject: SMH: The price of our mistakes

Sydney Morning Herald

The price of our mistakes

April 17, 2004

Australia's intelligence failures are measured in East Timorese dead, Tom Allard writes.

The liberation of East Timor has frequently been cited by the Prime Minister, John Howard, as one of his proudest achievements in eight years of government. True enough, a nation was born and no Australian lives were lost in restoring order and quashing militia remnants in the ravaged former Indonesian province.

But the revelations this week by the army intelligence analyst Lieutenant-Colonel Lance Collins underscore an uncomfortable fact - Australia long resisted standing up to Indonesian-sponsored atrocities and stumbled into a rescue mission in an alarmingly haphazard manner. Australia's handling of the situation resulted in the unnecessary loss of East Timorese lives and left Australia's military woefully unprepared when it had to intervene.

This, ultimately, was the consequence of ignoring the intelligence warnings by Collins and others. And it is what happens when the national security apparatus becomes politicised.

That goes double when the politicisation reflects a fundamentally flawed foreign policy dating back 30 years. The misguided policy, espoused by the so-called "pro-Jakarta school" of diplomats and bureaucrats, can be summarised as appeasing the Indonesian government in the belief that, as Australia's near-neighbour with a population of 200 million, good government-to-government relations were the most important consideration.

According to Collins, he had presented evidence as far back as July 1998 of Indonesian involvement in violent militia acts against the East Timorese and warning that the situation in the province could descend into chaos.

More assessments followed, backed by intercepts by the Defence Signals Directorate from as early as February 1999 showing senior Indonesian military and defence figures were directing the militia attacks. The violence was clearly aimed at undermining the independence ballot surprisingly announced by Indonesia's then-new President B.J. Habibie after a letter from Howard urging Habibie consider special autonomy - though not independence - for East Timor.

The US was concerned. A senior US diplomat, Stanley Roth, met the secretary of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs, Ashton Calvert, in February 1999, and discussed whether peacekeepers might be required to intervene in the province.

Calvert rejected the idea. That policy continued until close to the date of the independence poll, August 30. The Government's rhetoric was that there was no proof of Indonesian military involvement in militia activity, other than some "rogue elements".

As the ballot approached, Australian intelligence repeatedly warned that a pro-independence vote would spur militia violence on a scale not yet seen. The warnings were once again discounted. Indeed, the Foreign Affairs deputy secretary, John Dauth, told parliamentary observers before the poll he was confident that, if the independence vote got up, Indonesia would leave the country quietly.

That's not what happened. Instead, there was a frightening wave of violence. As the upheaval continued in a vacuum with a limited foreign presence and little media scrutiny, Australia's diplomats made little progress in persuading Indonesia to let UN peacekeepers in to restore order.

Unprepared for the rampage that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the poll, Australia led an evacuation, instructing its troops to take no steps to act as peacekeepers in the process.

In the end, it was the US that forced Indonesia to admit an international force after threatening massive economic sanctions.

According to UN figures, 1500 East Timorese died while 70 per cent of buildings in the capital, Dili, were destroyed in the three weeks between the vote and the arrival of the UN-backed Interfet deployment in late September.

Australia's relations with the US were strained. Indeed, only a year before, the US and Australia had organised a new intelligence sharing agreement which gave Australia carriage of Indonesia. Yet Australia wasn't passing on the more alarming assessments of Indonesian complicity in gang violence.

A Defence Intelligence Organisation liaison officer in Washington, Major Merv Jenkins, did slip some of this "Australian eyes only" material to his US contacts. After this was discovered, he was severely reprimanded and effectively accused of treason. In May of that year, he hanged himself in his garage.

A subsequent inquiry was highly critical of the Government's handling of the episode, although many, including Collins, believe the full story has yet to come out. A report by the navy lawyer Captain Martin Toohey into Collins's grievances found his concerns about the treatment of Jenkins were not properly addressed.

Discounting intelligence warnings about post-ballot violence in East Timor also affected military preparations. While some contingencies were in place at a tactical and operational level, the overarching strategic support was totally inadequate. It wasn't until after the vote, when the violence was in full swing, that a strategic policy unit was set up at Defence headquarters.

Former SAS commander Jim Wallace said in 2002 that Australia was ill-prepared for the operation, lacking sufficient troop transport and infrastructure and relying too much on undertrained reservists. He attributed this to the civilian strategic planners who for 15 years did little to prepare for the possibility of intervention in East Timor, seeing the Army's role primarily in terms of Australia's defence. In the end, it was the astute leadership of the Interfet commander, General Peter Cosgrove, assisted by Collins and other talented officers and soldiers, that achieved the mission's success.

Equally vital, if not more so, was the pressure brought to bear by the US to keep in line Indonesian military leaders who had been directing the militia violence during the operation. And, arguably, most important of all were the East Timorese, the vast majority of whom voted for independence. As one military officer said this week. "We were successful because we had an army of 500,000, rather than 10,000."

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