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Foreign relations experts discuss information available to Australian intelligence on Indonesian military's involvement in East Timor.

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PHILLIP ADAMS: Last week we had a discussion about the murder of the five Australian journalists in Balibo, just prior to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor back in ’75. I hope you recall the discussion. We had Hamish McDonald, who is the foreign editor at the SMH, and Des Ball, Professor of Strategic Studies at ANU, discussing their book Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra , which tells the whole sorry, sickening saga of how Australian spies and diplomats knew that the Indonesian military were planning to murder the journalists but did nothing to prevent it. This is an extraordinary accusation and one awaits official response.


It was a discussion that raised lots and lots of disturbing questions, not the least of which, if we knew that much about Indonesia’s plans to invade East Timor and kill Australian nationals back in ’75, what might we have known about the Indonesian’s plans to devastate Dili after the independence ballot last year?


Now, I raised that question ever so briefly last week just as time was running out and it was left to another day—and that day is this. A flood of emails arrived in the office asking us to resume that discussion and we are, as ever, putty in your hands.


Joining me again—Hamish McDonald and Des Ball, and I am delighted to welcome onto the show, Scott Burchill. Scott lectures in international relations at Deakin, and is a former diplomat—but we won’t hold that against him.


Des, let’s start with you. On 31 August the UN-supervised ballot in East Timor began. Almost immediately after it the killings escalated, which we later discovered to be orchestrated from Jakarta. What were our intelligence intercepts telling us, at that time, about what was being planned?


DESMOND BALL: I believe that right from the end of 1998, intelligence intercepts produced by the Defence Signals Directorate were providing a very accurate, precise and detailed picture, both of planning for the subsequent holocaust as well as details of the relationship between particular commanders of the Indonesian Army and militia groups and militia leaders in East Timor itself.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Des, you say ‘I believe’. Do you know?


DESMOND BALL: I know what was being reported to the government. Yes, I am familiar with the whole series of intelligence assessments produced, for example, by the Defence Intelligence Organisation over the 12 month period from November ’98 to November ’99. From that you can tell what the assessment organisations—that is the DIO and the Office of National Assessments—were receiving from the collection agencies, that is DSD and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Des, in our last exciting episode you were telling us about DSD and its considerable ability to hoover the information into the heavens, but that was of course in ’75. I suspect that these days they are even better equipped.


DESMOND BALL: Yes, indeed. Last week we were talking about the Shoal Bay Station which, back in 1975, was primarily equipped for picking up high-frequency radio communications. Well these days, if you had a look at Shoal Bay you would see that there are about a dozen satellite dishes, and they are for monitoring wholly and solely Indonesian satellite communications, including sat. phones but also mobile phones which use satellite transmissions.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Now, let’s bring Hamish in.


Who actually saw these intelligence reports, in your view, Hamish, these intercepts in ’75, as your have explained? You never got further than the spies and diplomats who withheld it from the politicians until the last possible moment. In 1999, was that how things were still running?


HAMISH McDONALD: No, I believe they were circulated to all the right people—certainly the Foreign Minister, Minister of Defence, Prime Minister, and their senior officials. So there is no excuse for not knowing what the [inaudible] were reporting.


PHILLIP ADAMS: But we were told by Downer and Howard that ‘rogue elements’ were responsible. Now, ‘rogue elements’ suggests freelancers, it suggests vigilante groups, who are not being coordinated and directed. Are you saying that this was a sort of a diplomatic porky?


HAMISH McDONALD: Indeed, it was. I mean, a celebrated case was a statement by Mr Downer on 7 March last year, which was three days after the DIO had reported that the military were involved in militia activity, and he went out in public and said it was rogue elements and that it certainly was not condoned by General Wiranto, who was then the defence chief of Indonesia.


PHILLIP ADAMS: So Australian governments telling porkys about East Timor has a long tradition and covers all major parties?


HAMISH McDONALD: Indeed. I believe they were trying to really hold the Indonesian government to their word, which was that they would guarantee the security of the ballot on East Timor’s future. What really made that rather tendentious was that while the government at the top, President Habibie might have agreed to do that, the military were not taking orders from him; they were running their own policy.


PHILLIP ADAMS: I recall Deputy PM, John Anderson, repeating words to the effect that the violence could not have been foreseen, we could not have foreseen or anticipated the relationship that emerged between the TNI and the militias. It is now clear, from your examination of the facts, that he was fudging it?


HAMISH McDONALD: I think there was ample warning. Possibly at the top the government did not believe the Indonesian military would act out the scenarios they had drawn up and in quite elaborate detail. And I think right up until early September, the DIO was not forecasting any special alert situation—this is days before the mass exodus, the forced deportations began to get under way after the ballot.


PHILLIP ADAMS: It seems to me, Des Ball, that Hamish is putting the kindest interpretation on this. Do you depart from what he has to say?


DESMOND BALL: No. In  some ways I would go further. I would say that in the early part of the year, that is around March, April and May, when DSD was providing a lot of detailed intelligence and the Defence Intelligence Organisation was reporting this up to the Prime Minister and the other ministers, that the Prime Minister and some of his key advisers just simply did not want to know about it, and later on when they did realise that massacres and, indeed, a real horror show was likely, they themselves then, while trying to put together an international peacekeeping force back in those last couple of months of August and then into September at that time, were underestimating what the real casualties and the real level of deportations were going to be.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Des, sometimes not wanting to know about things can have an heroic dimension—I think of Nelson holding the telescope to his blind eye. Is there any hint of an heroic here?


DESMOND BALL: Yes, certainly in that earlier period they did not want to know. They thought that their special relationship between Canberra and Jakarta would be sufficient to make sure that the military did not get out of control. They thought that they would be able to sort of influence events and, having reports of the sort of detail that they were receiving, would have made it very difficult in their dealings with Jakarta.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Let’s bring in Scott Burchill. Now, Scott, the discussion so far raises the whole debate about what Australia could have done to prevent the desecration of Dili. You suggest, I understand it, that Australia should never have allowed the tripartite agreement between the UN, Portugal and Indonesia, which set the terms for that ballot, to go ahead as it did.


SCOTT BURCHILL: I think that was the fundamental fault in the structure of the ballot because in that agreement the Indonesians were given the sole responsibility to maintain law and order before, during and after the ballot. It was obviously....


PHILLIP ADAMS: Could that have been different? Could there have been a negotiation which insisted on UN coming in in the event of disturbance?


SCOTT BURCHILL: I think that was the missing element. There should have been a default clause in the agreement which would have allowed the Indonesians the first option of maintaining law and order and fulfilling their obligation. But if in the event ... the impression of the Secretary-General, if in fact that wasn’t the case, then an automatic peacekeeping force would have been deployed to....


PHILLIP ADAMS: Do you know whether that was ever suggested in the negotiations and whether, perhaps, Indonesia refused?


SCOTT BURCHILL: Whenever I have asked about this it has always been suggested that the Indonesians would not have agreed in the negotiations. But I suspect that both the Portuguese and the United Nations in New York were simply so glad to get a ballot up and running by August that they were not prepared to push the Indonesians far enough on that issue and of course....


PHILLIP ADAMS: Scott, it seems to me that almost everyone involved—the UN, Australia, Portugal, even to a large extent the media here, had a wish fulfilment fantasy running?


SCOTT BURCHILL: Well, they shouldn’t have. If they had known anything about the history of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor over the last 25 years, they would have known that the violence meted out by the military and their proxies was a fairly normal course of events in that province. So there is really no excuse for believing that somehow or other the TNI and the militias have changed their way simply because a democratic ballot had been held and everyone would then be peacefully accepting of it.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Now Hamish, in 1998, John Howard sends a Christmas letter to the former President Habibie, and as I understand, proposed that East Timor proceed slowly to democracy after, what?, a ten-year period of autonomy, then to be followed by a referendum. Would our intelligence have been telling us that this was a better way to go, or equally dangerous?


HAMISH McDONALD: I think the whole weight of Australian ... that was quite a great switch in Australia policy. I think they would have been thinking that was probably the best they could persuade Indonesians to accept— a ten-year chance to show that autonomy worked.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Des, when we were discussing ’75 on the program together last week, you emphasised that back then Australia’s diplomats and spies did not want to let on what they knew, partly because they feared that their spying capability would be compromised, or at least confirmed. Were these the same considerations 25 years later?


DESMOND BALL: No, I think things were rather different. I don’t know of any instance of withholding in the case of the events in 1999. They were producing their intelligence and their assessments for the government.


PHILLIP ADAMS: No, but I am talking about the Indonesian attitude to our capability. Were the Indonesians fully aware of just how good our surveillance technologies were?


DESMOND BALL: Oh, I am sure they are not fully aware. They have, without any doubt, a good knowledge of DSD and some of its operations, especially its radio monitoring operations. But DSD can do a lot of tricks with respect to other forms of modern communications technologies including, particularly, satellite systems and....


PHILLIP ADAMS: Leak something on our program, please, Des.




PHILLIP ADAMS: Leak something about these capabilities on our program. Give us a hint. Can they steam-open letters by remote control or something?


DESMOND BALL: Yes, they can do that. They can monitor emails, they can monitor faxes. But what happened in the case of East Timor, in particular, was that the Indonesian Army made less and less use of its field radios, particularly in the case of communications with the militia units, and simply pulled out their mobile phones, which are much, much easier to use....


PHILLIP ADAMS: And much easier to track.


DESMOND BALL: Yes, and DSD had little difficulty in tracking them, yes.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Des, how did you get your hands onto all these documents with ‘top secret’ stamped over them? Is our spy service leaking all over the place?


DESMOND BALL: Yes, I think there has been an unfortunate spate of leaks affecting, in particular, the Defence Intelligence Organisation now for about the last 18 months or so. And in large part I think that comes about because of frustration that the quality of the reporting contrasts to the level at which it is being taken seriously by the government. In other words, when the government was ignoring what they were saying about the likelihood of violence and the involvement of the Indonesian Army in the planning for that violence, I think they became very frustrated and elements of the organisation starting leaking.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Scott, you have written a lot about the influence on Australia’s Indonesia policy, of a group characterised as ‘the Jakarta lobby’. Would you be kind enough to identify them?


SCOTT BURCHILL: They are an informal group of journalists, academics and former bureaucrats who have kept a very tight reign on Australian policy towards Indonesia and East Timor, really since the rise to power of Suharto in the middle of the 1960s.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Do they have funny handshakes? I mean, how do they know each other?


DESMOND BALL: They know each other because they all think the same way and that is that absolute priority has to be given to maintaining a good relationship with Jakarta, regardless of the moral tenor of that regime. East Timor was always an irritant in the bilateral relationship so the Jakarta lobby spent a great deal of time, in opinion pieces and in academic pieces, trying to minimise the importance of East Timor and, in fact, trying to I guess write it out of their script by suggesting that the time for independence had passed into history and that there was no point in trying to keep the issue alive.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Well, one would assume that the lobby’s influence is now enormously depleted?


DESMOND BALL: Yes, I think this is what really worries them. There is a sense of moral panic amongst some members of the Jakarta lobby that their influence, their consultancies and their contacts are no longer going to carry the weight that they had become accustomed to. And I think this is a product of the fact that Mr Howard has, of course, repudiated the notion of a special relationship between Canberra and Jakarta, something which they of course would regard as their finest achievement.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Hamish, there have been calls galore for an international commission of inquiry into the East Timor atrocities. If that was to get off the ground and all the documents that you have been mentioning were put on the table, it would not look too good for Australia, would it?


HAMISH McDONALD: I don’t think so although it would obviously be the TNI who would be the ones in the dock and there would be enough, certainly on Tokyo and Nuremburg precedents, to hang dozens of them, but Australia would look pretty weak, for the first half of last year. Basically it was hanging back, it was withholding the evidence because it knew that if it admitted that evidence it would have to act and it did not want to act against Indonesia.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Des, in your book, Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra , you revealed that certain key documents had gone missing about those events. Might that he happening now, do you think? Are the paper shredders working overtime?


DESMOND BALL: I don’t think so among the intelligence community. I think the intelligence agencies are, by and large, fairly proud with what they produced for the government. I think, on the other hand, if there is any such destruction going on, and any re-writing of history, it is more likely to be within the Prime Minister’s own personal office and among his close personal assistants at the time, who would be wanting to muddy the waters a little bit with respect to why they were really ignoring the intelligence at the time and simply pursuing their policies for their own political purposes.


PHILLIP ADAMS: I’d like to end this chat with a final question to you, Scott Burchill.


John Howard has implied—more than implied—that the government has taken a new moral turn on these matters. Would you agree?


SCOTT BURCHILL: No, I don’t think so. I think Howard’s position, of course, was in favour of integration of East Timor into Indonesia until that position became untenable by the escalation of violence last year. And I think from what Hamish said earlier, the government knew very well that the TNI were behind the violence last year. The only reason they eventually acted I think was because the enormous pressure of public opinion, the visual images being beamed out of Dili, forced the government’s hand. Of course it also in the process exposed the lie that in fact these were rogue elements orchestrating the violence; they were in fact senior members of the Indonesian military. And I think the reason they tried to disguise that is because at the time Canberra did not know whether or not Wiranto would feature in the new independent government in Jakarta. So they were not prepared to burn their bridges by labelling him the person responsible until of course it was leaked to John Lyons and other journalists later last year.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Hamish, I said that was the last question—that was a porky because I want to ask you, on behalf of you and Des, this question. Has there been any official response from anywhere in Canberra to the book thus far?


HAMISH McDONALD: Not one word officially on the record. A few comments indirectly but nothing from the government at all, no.


PHILLIP ADAMS: Gentlemen, the voices of Hamish McDonald, Foreign Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald , co-author with Des of Death in Balibo, Lies in Canberra , published by Allen and Unwin, and ignored by Canberra. Des being Professor Desmond Ball, Australia’s leading intelligence expert, Special Professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU; and Scott Burchill, Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University and, yes, a former diplomat.