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How to gut a democracy: misusing Australia's overseas spy service

By Warren Reed - posted Monday, 15 July 2019

Most Australians interested in how the governance of our nation is handled will be following the Witness K case. Briefly, he's the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) officer who led a small team to Timor Leste in 2004 to bug that government's cabinet room. This occurred at a time when our two countries were involved in negotiations over our sea-bed boundary and the allocation of oil and gas reserves.

The media, which has done a lot of good work on this case, and continues to, has informed us that Witness K was troubled by the fact that our Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) at the time, and the Secretary of his department, subsequently gained lucrative positions with the Australian oil and gas company due to develop those reserves when negotiations were successfully concluded. Note, that that minister is the one responsible for ASIS, and who approves all such operations, whether technical or otherwise. At the time of the bugging it was Alexander Downer. The DFAT Secretary was Dr. Ashton Calvert. Witness K complained to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), which is our intelligence watchdog, and received approval to brief a Canberra lawyer, Bernard Collaery, who is a former ACT Attorney-General.

In 2013, Witness K's Canberra home was raided as well as the office of Mr. Collaery. Both were charged with revealing state secrets and Witness K had his passport seized. The court case drags on and is surrounded by irregularities that should concern all Australians. Serving and former spies are the first to acknowledge that governments not only have the right to protect their secrets but also the obligation to do so. After all, we share a lot with our Five Eyes partners as well as others, and the Americans in particular have long wanted us to clean up our act. Being the weak link in the chain is nothing to be proud of.


ASIS officers, whether current or past, are not in the habit of whistleblowing. It runs counter to all of their professional and personal instincts. So, when they do so it's always about something important, something that might even subvert our democratic system. Whistleblowing at the best of times is a nightmarish and thankless pursuit. The blowtorching you get can push people to suicide, which is quite often the intent of the organisation involved. When it's an intelligence agency, the torching is far more severe, so much so that it would do Stalinist Russia proud (These words are not used lightly). Witness K, whom I've never met, nor have I his lawyer, know what I mean. I do too, because, along with other erstwhile ASIS colleagues, I did that in 1994. And bear in mind, whatever you see in public about a whistlebower case is just the tip of the iceberg.

To put both democracy and whistleblowing in context, please ponder this wily definition from an unexpected quarter – Norman Mailer, the late American novelist. Addressing the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in 2003 he observed that: "Real democracy comes out of many subtle individual human battles that are fought over decades and finally over centuries … [It] is a state of grace attained only by those countries that have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom, but to undergo the heavy labour to maintain it."

That's where whistleblowers are coming from, and especially Witness K. His and his lawyer's case should be a matter of deep concern for all Australians.

As background, let me point out that I have had only cursory contact with Mr. Downer (ultimately to our country's advantage), but I was much better acquainted with the late Dr Ashton Calvert. As fellow Tasmanians, and separated by just a few weeks in age, our paths crossed again in Japan nearly fifty years ago. I was doing post-graduate work in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University, in Japanese, as an Australia-Japan Business Co-operation Committee Scholar and Ashton was undertaking an intensive Japanese-language course at the U.S. State Department language school in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo. He had completed his doctoral studies in higher mathematics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and had been recruited into DFAT. Ashton was a good man and one of the most intelligent and witty people I have ever met. He had various stints in our embassy in Japan, including as ambassador. Whenever I visited Tokyo, we'd have lunch and exchange notes.

Later, when I myself was being blowtorched as an ASIS whistleblower, Ashton and I had little direct contact. He was aware of the ways in which I was being targeted, and due to the positions he held, was, on the surface, one of my antagonists. Nevertheless, he managed to tip me off on a number of times when things became ugly. I will forever be grateful to him for that.

The last time we met we reminisced over the different paths that life had taken us on and how we had stayed loyal to our values throughout. Ashton surprised me by revealing his involvement with the commercial world, which was something that clearly didn't sit comfortably with him at that stage in his life. He died prematurely of cancer at the age of 62.


To return to the Witness K case, there are two dimensions to it. One revolves around the bugging operation in Timor Leste. That exercise worries many people, though not others. What I wish to focus on here is the second: the mis-use of ASIS for personal gain. In a liberal democracy, that is not just a travesty, and criminal; it is also one way in which our political system can be gutted at its heart.

Is that what happened here? Australians deserve an answer from their government, and without more procrastination and Houdini-like acrobatics.

The charges against Witness K and Bernard Collaery should be withdrawn and Witness K's passport returned. Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, seems a fair-minded man. I would urge him to consider arranging for the Federal Attorney-General, Christian Porter, to sit down with both gentlemen to hammer out a simple one-paragraph statement that tells Australians why Witness K went public. Not only do he and Mr. Collaery deserve that, but it is crucial that ASIS men and women serving our country overseas see that their fellow Australians know how and why their Service was mis-used in this manner. The government needs to draw a line under this whole sordid affair as quickly as possible. When you're operating overseas as a spy, you need it like a hole in the head. Your agents – the traitors you're paying to procure their country's most closely guarded secrets – are nervous nellies at the best of times. Seeing news of a case like this cropping up regularly in the global media can persuade them that their involvement with ASIS is just too risky by far.

Mr. Morrison, please ensure that my old Service is never mis-used in this way again.

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About the Author

Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University in the 1970s. He later spent ten years in intelligence and was also chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. He served in Asia, the Middle East and India.

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