Australia continues to deny freedom of movement to a former intelligence officer who revealed that Canberra bugged government offices in the small island nation of Timor-Leste, in an effort to secure a lucrative oil deal.
The former intelligence officer, known only as “Witness K.”, is believed to be a former director of technical operations in the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Australia’s foreign-intelligence agency. In 2013, he publicly objected to an intelligence-collection operation that targeted the impoverished Pacific island nation of Timor-Leste, known also as East Timor.
According to Witness K., a group of ASIS officers disguised themselves as members of a renovation crew and planted numerous electronic surveillance devices in an East Timorese government complex. The inside information collected from those devices allegedly allowed the Australian government to gain the upper hand in a series of complex negotiations that led to the 2004 Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) treaty. The treaty awards Australia a share from profits from oil exploration in the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field, which is claimed by both Australia and East Timor. But in 2013, the East Timorese government took Australia to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, claiming that the CMATS treaty should be scrapped. The East Timorese claimed that during the sensitive negotiations that preceded the CMATS treaty, the Australian government was in possession of intelligence acquired through ASIS bugging.
The claim of the East Timorese government was supported by Witness K., who argued that ASIS’ espionage operation was both “immoral and wrong” because it was designed to benefit the interests of large energy conglomerates and had nothing to do with Australian national security. But as soon as the East Timorese told the Permanent Court of Arbitration that they would be questioning a witness from ASIS, officers from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, raided the Canberra law offices of Bernard Collaery, East Timor’s lawyer in the case. The raiders took away documents that disclosed the identity of Witness K., and then proceeded to detain him for questioning. They also confiscated his passport, which prevented him from traveling to the Netherlands to testify in the case.
In the months that followed, an embarrassed Australian government quietly conceded to East Timor’s claims and agreed to renegotiate the CMATS treaty. A new treaty was officially signed this week. But Bernard Collaery, whose officers were raided by the ASIO in 2013, and who now acts as Witness K.’s lawyer, said on Wednesday that the Australian government continues to treat his client in a “disgraceful” manner. According to Collaery, the former spy launched an official appeal to have his passport returned to him by ASIO. The agency’s director spoke publicly in favor of Witness K.’s request. But the Australian government has refused to allow the whistleblower to leave the country, and continues to describe him as a security threat. Collaery told reporters on Wednesday that the continuing refusal of the Australian government to return Witness K. his passport is an act of “pure retaliation” against his client.
The case of Witness K. has been widely followed in the Australian and international media and has prompted numerous calls from legal groups and human-rights agencies for Canberra to respect international law. It is worth noting that Witness K. said he decided to reveal the ASIS bugging operation in 2012, after he learned that Australia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, had been hired as an adviser to Woodside Petroleum, an energy company that was directly benefiting from the CMATS treaty.
***JOSEPH FITSANAKIS, BSocSc, MSc, PhD, is Associate Professor of Political Science in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University. Prior to joining Coastal, he built the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University, where he also directed the King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies. An award-winning professor, Dr. Fitsanakis has lectured, taught and written extensively on subjects such as international espionage, intelligence tradecraft, wiretapping, cyberespionage, and transnational crime. He is a syndicated columnist and frequent contributor to news media such as BBC television, CBC television, ABC radio, and NPR, and his work has been referenced in outlets including The Washington Post, Newsweek, Forbes, Foreign Policy, Politico, and The Huffington Post. He can be contacted via email at joe [at] intelnews.org, or by calling 423-742-1627 in the United States.