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Under cover of national security

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 25 June 2021

It’s become clear, the planting of listening devices in the cabinet offices by a team of Australian Security Intelligence Service (ASIS) operatives in 2004, was not for the purposes of national security, but to enhance commercial interests.

Australia has acted against the interests of Timor Leste (formally East Timor) on a number of occasions. In 1975, declassified documents indicated the then Whitlam Labor government supported an Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor. In 1979, the Fraser Liberal government recognized Indonesia’s annexation of the province into Indonesia. Australia was silent over Indonesian army atrocities, which decimated most of the territory, and caused the deaths of more than 120,000 Timorese.

Declassified intelligence documents indicated that the Howard government didn’t support the US initiative in sending peacekeepers into Timor until the last minute, and was aware of Jakarta supported militant groups operating in the territory, responsible for violence, intimidation and murder of East Timorese, at the time.


The latest chapter in Australian government deceit is currently playing out at the ACT Magistrates Court, where two people, one named as Witness K (whose name can’t be disclosed as a former operative of ASIS due to the Intelligence Services Act 2001), and his lawyer, former ACT attorney general Bernard Collaery.

Witness K exposed an illegal covert operation against the Timor Leste government, occurring back in 2004. Former foreign minister Alexander Downer had personally authorized ASIS to plant listening devices in the cabinet complex in Dili. This operation was undertaken by ASIS operatives, posing undercover of an aid project to Timor Leste, to refurbish the government offices.

The eavesdropping on the Timor Leste negotiation team on the division of oil and gas rights in the Timor Sea had more to do with the business interests of Woodside Petroleum, and its subsidiaries, than with Australia’s national security. War torn Timor Leste, needed to urgently finalize an agreement to earn much needed revenue to rebuild the country.

The Australian government objective was to find out what the Timor Leste negotiating team’s bottom line would be, negotiation tactics, and what individual members of the government were thinking about the negotiations. Alexander Downer, leading negotiations for Australia, was at an advantage with this illegally gathered information. As a consequence, he was able to negotiate terms favourable to Australia, where the oil and gas reserves at the Greater Sunrise Fields would be shared on an equal basis.

Witness K, who was reported to be the head of ASIS technical operations, later felt that the execution of this operation breached the agency’s statutory charter, as the operation was specifically arranged to extract information to advantage one side in business negotiations, rather than any deal with any matters of national security, or an operation critical to ASIS watching brief.

Three months before East Timor became independent from Indonesia in 2002, then foreign minister Downer withdrew Australia from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. This prevented Timor Leste turning to the court with their claim, forcing them to negotiate bilaterally with the Australian government.


Witness K felt ASIS had been used to benefit specific business interests, at the detriment of Australia’s real national interests, and security requirements. Woodside, which owns a consortium of ventures with rights to explore the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields, which have massive oil and gas reserves, would directly benefit.

Woodside management traditionally had close relationships with members of the Australian government. The former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Dr Ashton Calvert, joined the board of Woodside immediately upon retiring from the Australian Public Service, in 2005. Former Labor MP, Gary Gray, who was a former minister for Resources under the Gillard government, worked for Woodside as director of corporate affairs before he entered parliament in 2007. Liberal Ian Macfarlane, a minister for Industry, Tourism, and Resources under the Howard government and later under the Abbot government, joined Woodside as a director in 2015, after leaving parliament.

Woodside is a major political donor and the company’s former chairman Charles Goode, sat on the board of the Liberal Party fundraising vehicle that generated electoral funds for the party.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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