Subject: SMH: Key piece of Balibo case kept secret
- SMH: Key piece of Balibo case kept secret, say officials
- transcript: Ex-ambassador discusses Balibo Five evidence
The Sydney Morning Herald Friday, February 23, 2007
Key piece of Balibo case kept secret, say officials
TWO former officials privy to some of Canberra's deepest secrets yesterday gave a Sydney court lessons on how sensitive intelligence could be hidden and kept "deniable".
They were giving evidence of sighting an apparent signals intercept on the 1975 killings of five newsmen in Balibo, East Timor so explosive it would have wrecked relations with Jakarta and demanded government action.
But in the process, George Brownbill and Ian Cunliffe gave the NSW Coroner's Court a guided tour of the secret passages of power in Canberra.
Mr Brownbill, 71, and Mr Cunliffe, 59, were key aides to the late Justice Robert Hope on his first royal commission into Australia's intelligence services in 1975-77.
Visiting the Defence Signals Directorate electronic listening station at Shoal Bay, Darwin, on March 4, 1977 they had been shown an intercepted message sent by an officer at Balibo to Jakarta soon after the October 16, 1975 killings. They recalled emphatically the intercept's elements: that the officer's troops had located and shot the five journalists on orders from Jakarta; they had been shot in the back of a shed or room; and orders were sought what to do with with the bodies and effects.
Mr Brownbill had the highest security clearances, as well as clearances by the United States, Britain and NATO. These had now lapsed, he said. "But your brain does not stop remembering."
He had assumed the intercept had been processed and sent to its proper recipients. Now he thinks it might have made a relevant case study for the Hope royal commission.
Neither the 1990 Balibo inquiry by the former National Crime Authority chairman Tom Sherman, or the 2002 report by the then Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Bill Blick, was able to unearth anything like the intercept from the archives.
Both former officials dismissed Mr Sherman's finding the intercept had been wrongly translated, given the high capabilities of the operators and linguists at Shoal Bay. "It would seem to me to be in effect a whitewash," Mr Cunliffe said.
Mr Brownbill said it was "quite possible" it had been put in a part of the records "where its existence became deniable".
It was also "entirely possible", given Canberra's interest in good relations with Indonesia, the explosive intercept was pulled from normal circulation, and discussed orally by ministers and top officials. This decision would probably not have been taken by the directorate itself but at senior levels in the Defence Department, Mr Cunliffe said.
The failure to produce the intercept to official inquiries meant either it had been destroyed, or that the searches "had not been concerted, but subverted," said Mr Cunliffe.
"By whom?" asked counsel assisting the coroner Mark Tedeschi, QC. "Subverted by people in the intelligence agencies," Mr Cunliffe said.
The deputy state coroner, Dorelle Pinch, renewed her appeal for the employee who showed the intercept to come forward to the inquest, without risk of breaching official secrets law.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News February 22, 2007
Ex-ambassador discusses Balibo Five evidence
MARK COLVIN: The Coronial Inquest into the death of Brian Peters in Balibo, East Timor today heard startling evidence from a former senior federal government official.
George Brownbill was secretary of the Hope Royal Commission into Australia's Intelligence agencies between 1975 and 1977.
He told the court that during that time he saw a radio message at the country's Defence Signals Directorate in Shoal Bay in the Northern Territory.
The message was intercepted on the day that five Australian-based journalists died in October 1975.
He recalled that the signal was from an Indonesian soldier in Balibo to his commander in Jakarta.
The message read 'as directed', or 'in accordance with your instructions the five journalists have been located and shot'.
The evidence gives weight to the long held suspicions of many that the Balibo Five were specifically targeted and executed by the Indonesian military.
The Australian Government's always denied any knowledge of the Indonesian involvement in the men's' deaths.
Richard Woolcott was Australia's ambassador in Jakarta at the time. He spoke to Emma Alberici.
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: In my view the people who are principally responsible for their deaths are the managements of Channel Nine and Seven. They should never have been sent there into that sort of situation.
EMMA ALBERICI: If it could have been proven that early, that the Indonesians were invading East Timor, that was a big story that needed to be uncovered. So they were absolutely in the right place at the right time to uncover that truth.
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: Well I don't necessarily disagree with that but there are great risks involved and it's very sad that they paid the price they did.
EMMA ALBERICI: You say you didn't know the journalists were in Balibo?
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: Absolutely.
EMMA ALBERICI: How much communication did you have with the Defence Signal Directorate in the days before October the 16th, 1975?
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: Very very little, almost none.
EMMA ALBERICI: Did you do all that could be done at the time to establish the truth about these deaths?
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: Oh absolutely!
Well nobody at the Embassy that I know of, had any idea that there were Australian journalists in that area at the time.
EMMA ALBERICI: They were transmitting footage back to Australia.
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: Yeah but...
EMMA ALBERICI: They had transmitted vision of painting the house in Balibo with the Australian flag.
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: Indeed but I...
EMMA ALBERICI: It was very public that they were there.
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: Yeah but in those days communications weren't like they are now. We had no knowledge of that.
Now on the 13th of October, we had gathered intelligence that Indonesian cross-border operations likely to happen and particularly in the Maliana and Balibo area. So on the 13th of October, I sent a cable, cable from Jakarta pointing this out.
Now the obvious implications of that would be if there were any Australians in the area, journalists or whatever, the Government should presumably take steps to have them warned or have the removed or ask the embassy to do something about it.
What I have never known is what action was taken on that cable in Canberra.
EMMA ALBERICI: You never asked?
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: Yes I did and I never got a particularly clear answer.
EMMA ALBERICI: It mustn't sit very comfortably with you. To know that you had sent this advice...
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: Of course not...
EMMA ALBERICI: ... and nothing was done.
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: ... well it sits comfortably with me that we sent it. I mean the information was there. The action that was taken in Canberra I don't know what it was.
EMMA ALBERICI: If you had these suspicions about Indonesia's involvement in the deaths of these five men, it seems incongruous that you should then seek their assistance in establishing the circumstances surrounding their deaths.
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: You have to... I was the Ambassador to Indonesia not to Portugal. We also sought the assistance of Portugal through our Ambassador in Lisbon.
EMMA ALBERICI: So are you suggesting that mistakes if they were made, were made in Canberra?
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: No I'm not suggesting that, because I don't really know what happened in Canberra. All I do know is we reported everything we knew fully, factually and accurately. We were a diplomatic post. Policy is made in Canberra.
EMMA ALBERICI: Surely you would have wanted to have known that Canberra did all it could to ensure that if they did indeed receive your advice, and knew the journalists were in Balibo, that they would do something to protect them?
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: Well yes. But I don't know whether they knew the journalists were in Balibo. Now you say they should have. But I don't know whether they did.
EMMA ALBERICI: And you never sought to find out.
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: Yes I did. I asked. And I got a rather frosty reply back.
EMMA ALBERICI: You knew the Indonesians were directly involved in the fighting in East Timor at that early stage, you had received some advice. You knew that the Indonesian Government did not want the rest of the world to know that.
Didn't the thought ever cross your mind that the Indonesians therefore had a clear motive to want to see the journalists dead rather than allow footage damaging to their international reputation to leak out?
RICHARD WOOLCOTT: Well as I said before we didn't know the journalists were there. The Indonesians had made an assessment that it was in their national security interest, when the civil war erupted in East Timor and the Portuguese abandoned the colony that they were then going to incorporate it.
They had hoped there'd be a three to five year transition period, an educational period, in the hope that when an act of self-determination took place, the people would opt to associate with Indonesia. That of course never happened because of the time frame and the way it developed.
MARK COLVIN: Richard Woolcott the former Australian Ambassador to Indonesia in the 70s. He was speaking to Emma Alberici.
------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service
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