Subject: The Passage of Secrets Between Australia and Indonesia

The Australian Financial Review Monday, December 13, 1999

The passage of secrets

Brian Toohey examines the political significance of the flow of intelligence material between Australia and Indonesia.

Not so long ago, Major General Zacky Anwar Makarim had good reason to smile when he saw a member of the Australian embassy enter his Jakarta headquarters. He could be fairly confident the visitor was bearing gifts. Anwar had little to offer in return, but this did not diminish the Australians' determination to prove they were generous allies.

Anwar headed the Indonesian military's main intelligence body, BIA (Armed Forces Intelligence Body). The Australian visitors were not calling as diplomats but as intelligence liaison officers. One of their most important jobs in Jakarta involved the hand delivery of highly sensitive intelligence material to BIA and its rival agency, the State Intelligence Co-ordinating Body (Bakin).

More limited liaison has occurred with the Co-ordination Body for the Consolidation of National Stability (Bakorstanas), often described as the intelligence wing of the Command for the Restoration of Security and Order.

BIA reverted to its earlier name of BAIS (Body for Strategic Intelligence) shortly after Anwar left to become Special Adviser on East Timor to the then Defence Minister, General Wiranto, at the start of the year.

Anwar is refusing to make himself available to a UN investigation into crimes against humanity in East Timor. But he has already been questioned by Indonesian investigators about his role in similar crimes in Aceh.

Even though it became clear over the course of the year that Anwar was co-ordinating a covert operation to wreck any chance of a peaceful transition to independence in East Timor, the flow of intelligence from Australia continued unabated until after the August 30 ballot. Military co-operation was cut back on September 10. Although it is widely assumed the flow of intelligence was also reduced, the Prime Minister, John Howard, says there will be no departure from the long-standing practice of refusing to comment on intelligence matters.

Given the sensitivity of the relationship, serving and recently retired intelligence officials are unwilling to speak on record. Privately, they say Indonesia began to be supplied during the Keating era with the sort of intelligence which would only have been swapped with Australia's long-term allies (mainly the United States and Britain) a few years earlier. Examples include satellite imagery as well as assessments based on top-secret electronic intercepts.

One reason for handing over this sort of material was to convince the Indonesians we wanted a special relationship by letting them put one foot in the door of what used to be an exclusive Anglo-Saxon "club" for swapping intelligence. The Indonesians had little to offer in return. A former intelligence official who helped supply this material says neither BAIS nor Bakin despite their official job descriptions are really interested in gathering strategic intelligence about the region, let alone passing it on to Australia. "Their job is really about the nitty gritty of maintaining support for the regime. They were always badgering us for stuff on East Timor or Indonesian students in Australia," he said.

So far as this source is aware, the Indonesians' demands for adverse material on dissidents were not met at least not through the normal liaison channels. But most members of the intelligence community don't know what is handed over via less formal channels at the behest of a minister or a senior official in the Foreign Affairs, Defence or Prime Minister's Department.

Any decision to hand over intelligence on internal security matters at this level can have ongoing political significance. Earlier this year, an official visitor to Jakarta says, he was told by a senior Indonesian minister that Australia supplied intercepted communications intelligence about military training of Achenese independence supporters in the 1980s. The much appreciated "gift", supposedly authorised at a ministerial level, was still seen as indicating Australian support for repressive measures to keep the rebellious province under Jakarta's control.

Staff in Australia's two main intelligence collection agencies, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), usually oppose handing over material that could endanger individuals. But they acknowledge that they lose control of information once it is passed on to ministers, departments and the main analytical agencies, the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) and the Office of National Assessments (ONA).

One intelligence gathering official says: "Anyone can quietly slip a document over at a meeting or a dinner. You don't have to be an accredited liaison officer. There were people further up the chain who passionately wanted [ex-president] Soeharto to stay in power. They didn't want to hear about whether people were tortured or murdered or whatever, so long as internal stability was assured. Even today, some would still be willing to see [the Political and Security Affairs Minister] General Wiranto take over if it helped stability. We simply don't know what, if anything, was handed over at higher levels."

Despite the decision to hand over the material on Aceh, the flow of intelligence from Australia in the 1980s was usually confined to more general information about events outside Indonesia. How far the volume and quality of the flow was expanded after Paul Keating became prime minister is unclear. Keating made his intentions plain at a press conference in Jakarta after a meeting with Soeharto in October 1993 when he said he was "very happy" with the first exercise which had recently been conducted between the Special Air Service and the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) and wanted similar co-operation to "spill over" into the intelligence area.

The official line is that co-operation increased without a substantive change in the nature of what was handed over. According to one highly placed intelligence official: "There was an attempt to implement what the PM wanted, no question about that. There were more frequent visits, more frequent exchanges, but there are also limits to how far you can go. You need to be careful about revealing your capabilities. You can hand over material on the South China Sea but you have to be careful in handing over detailed material on Indonesia itself." But another official says far more sensitive material was transmitted through the formal channels than previously.

The Nine Network's Sunday program gave an example of the increased level of co-operation in May when it showed a video of a plaque commemorating the visit of a DIO officer, Colonel Di Harris, to the Indonesian military's headquarters in Dili. While the Defence Department denies any Australian intelligence was handed over during the discussions, friendly contact with those controlling the repression on the ground in East Timor was not allowed before Keating upgraded the relationship.

Some younger intelligence officials question why we hand over other material from highly classified sources when we get so little in return. Less critical officials say we can't really expect to get much in return because over 90 per cent of the Indonesian intelligence relates to internal security where the detail is of little relevance for Australia.

Even in areas where a reciprocal relationship could be expected, little headway has been made. The most disappointing example involves requests for help in the mid-1990s when it became clear Indonesian boat operators were bringing illegal migrants into Australia. According to one official: "Basically, we got nothing. They didn't know or weren't saying. That's still the situation, as I understand it."

This has not stopped the Australian Federal Police from hoping it might have better luck. An AFP officer spent several months in Jakarta earlier this year conducting a review of the Indonesian police's ability to handle criminal and intelligence information. At the same time, other AFP officers were working for the UN in East Timor where Indonesian police participated in the violence perpetrated by militia groups orchestrated by General Anwar.

According to the AFP, no decision has been made on what further involvement, if any, it will have in setting up a new intelligence handling system for the Indonesian police. The AFP anticipates a positive decision would lead to a better flow of information on people smuggling than ASIS managed. As well as problems of extensive corruption, however, the Indonesian police have an important role in suppressing dissent in provinces such as Aceh. Given the pernicious human rights record of their ultimate boss, Wiranto, any Australian decision to go ahead with building a new national intelligence data base for the police is likely to attract stiff opposition within Australia.

One Canberra-based intelligence analyst says: "You've got to realise all these bodies are intertwined the police, Kopassus, BAIS, Bakin, Bakorstanas and so on. Their job is to maintain internal security. They pervade Indonesian society as strongly as the Stasi [secret police] in the old East Germany. And they're more ruthless than the Stasi ever dreamt of ."

According to this analyst: "Our political masters should really be aware of who they are dealing with here. BAIS, or BIA as it used to be called, is a really nasty outfit. Everyone knows about Kopassus, but it's been up to its neck in torture too. You're really giving these bodies your imprimatur when you supply them with intelligence, even if it has no direct link to anyone getting arrested or tortured."

Others are more interested in questions of efficiency. While not approving of torture, a 1994 report from the then Australian Defence Attache in Jakarta, Brigadier Keith Mellor, contained no hint of criticism of what he called "the internal security apparatus". Mellor wrote that the "internal intelligence network and the means of dealing with internal security incidents continue to be capable of carrying out their mission in a timely and flexible manner ... [The] handling of internal security problems in Irian Jaya, East Timor and Aceh ... has been effective".

Democratic reformers in Indonesia would like to make the internal security apparatus much less effective and far more accountable. So far, however, there are few indications the power of the military and its pervasive intelligence agencies has waned since the election in October of Abdurrahman Wahid as President.

Until this happens, the supply of Australian intelligence to these agencies will remain a contentious issue. So will the unsuccessful hunt revealed in September to identify a senior Australian official whose alleged recruitment as a BAIS agent really brought a smile to Zacky Anwar's face.

Back to December Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter V3.5.8, is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from