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Lessons From East Timor: what value Australia’s intelligence apparatus?

By Warren Reed - posted Wednesday, 23 July 2008

By any measure, our intelligence agencies are the eyes and ears of the nation. But in the lead-up to the violence and killings of 1999 in East Timor it seemed that Canberra’s political masters were like two of the wise monkeys, seeing nothing and hearing nothing. The third monkey, however, had a lot to say, the nature of which bore little resemblance to the truth.

And truth - or at least, the portrayal of reality for what it is rather than what someone else wants it to be - is the essence of intelligence work. This applies as much to the gathering end of the process as to the analytical end. Muck with that and you destroy the raison d’être for an intelligence system. You also destroy the belief that the people who work in that system have in their profession and in its charter to protect and enhance the national interest.

With this in mind, it was interesting to note two things that coincided in mid-July. One was Alexander Downer’s public assessment of his own performance over 11 years as Australia’s Foreign Minister. The other was the release of the report of the joint Indonesian-East Timorese Commission for Truth and Friendship.


The latter report confirmed what we had always known: that the Indonesian authorities, especially the armed forces, or TNI, were behind the atrocities committed by the militias.

President Yudhoyono acknowledged “institutional” responsibility for this and while not apologising, expressed his remorse for the acts of rape, murder and torture visited upon the East Timorese that were brought forth by their independence vote.

But Mr Downer, in rebuffing a Sydney Morning Herald article critical of his years in office, told its readers (Downer, “Bias ignores years of hard work on foreign policy”, SMH, July 11, 2008) that he often cited East Timor as his greatest achievement. He wrote that he had “commissioned the 1998 survey of East Timorese opinion which led to the Howard letter, which was initiated by me and drafted in my department. The intensity of the subsequent diplomacy led, eventually and untidily, to a free and independent East Timor.”

The Foreign Minister, it should be pointed out, is also the minister responsible for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), which is the country’s overseas spy agency. One of the reasons for having the Service is to avoid bringing “untidiness” - hardly the most respectful of euphemisms - into the lives of people around us.

How can Mr Downer’s pride in his accomplishment be reconciled with what actually happened in 1999?

It can’t be.


Three crucial questions arise, each of which the former minister should be obliged to address. They should have been looked at many years ago.

First, did Australia’s intelligence agencies fail to provide the government of the day with a reasonable picture of what was coming in East Timor? If that were so, it would have constituted an exceptional failure of our system, especially vis-à-vis a major neighbour, and would have required a broad-ranging inquiry. No such inquiry has ever been called.

Second, was appropriate intelligence gathered and analysed and then passed on to the Government, but ignored?

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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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