DESPITE the usual diplomatic niceties at the celebration of the thirty-eighth anniversary of Timor-Leste’s declaration of independence in Canberra last week, the raid on that nation’s legal counsel in Australia, Bernard Colleary, probably says more about the current state of the relationship between the two countries. It may be true, as attorney-general George Brandis asserts, that ASIO was more concerned about the potential identification of Australian intelligence activities and identities than in undermining the forthcoming arbitration in The Hague over an oil revenue sharing treaty. In practice, however, it is difficult to peel those two apart. This is especially so given that Timor-Leste’s star witness in the arbitration – an ASIS agent turned whistleblower – has had his passport removed, an act that will inevitably affect the presentation of Timor-Leste’s case.
The key allegation is that Australian intelligence operatives spied on the Timorese negotiating team in 2004, and that the surveillance was aimed at securing a commercial advantage in revenue-sharing talks. Especially damaging is the allegation that the exercise involved planting listening devices under the guise of an aid project to renovate government offices, rather than more routine communications surveillance, which – though damaging – might more easily be represented as incidental to a security purpose. This raises wider issues about the regulation of intelligence agencies, the opaque enforcement of these laws, and the lack of adequate independent judicial oversight…
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