Gwynne Dyer: Whistle blower exposes Australian spying on East Timor

And now for something completely different: a spy story that isn’t about Edward Snowden’s disclosures and the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance of everything and everybody. This one could come straight out of a 1950s spy thriller: a microphone buried in a wall, a listening post manned by people with headphones, and transcripts of secret conversations delivered to negotiators.


Now it’s true that Australia is a member of the Gang of Five, more formally known as the “Five Eyes” (the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand), which share most of the information that they acquire through high-tech mass surveillance. That’s the kind of spying that Snowden’s leaks are about, and whatever Australia picks up through this process it presumably shares with its co-conspirators.

It was in this context that Australia listened to the phone conversations of Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife, and eight potential successors. When Indonesia recalled its ambassador from Canberra and protested, Prime Minister Tony Abbott swatted the protest away with the line they are all using now: “All governments gather information and all governments know that every other government gathers information.”

The Indonesian reply was a classic. “I have news for you,” said Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. “We don’t do it. We certainly should not be doing it among friends.” He was, he said, deeply unhappy about the “dismissive answer being provided” by the Australian government. So Australia has managed to alienate its biggest neighbour, probably for no advantage to itself, just as the United States has alienated Brazil with the same tactics.

But the kind of spying under discussion here was too shameful to share even with the other Four Eyes of the “Anglosphere”. It was an Australian-only operation mounted in 2004 to gather information about the negotiating position of a very poor neighbouring country, East Timor, so that Australia could rip its neighbour off in a treaty that divided a rich gas field on the seabed between them.

The treaty in question, “Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea”, always seemed a bit peculiar. The CMATS treaty gave Australia a half share in the massive Greater Sunrise field, which is said to be worth $40 billion. But that field lies just 100 kilometres south of East Timor, and 400 kilometres from Australia.

The normal rule on international seabed rights would put the boundary equidistant between the two countries, but that would have given East Timor sovereignty over the entire gas field. Instead, CMATS postponed a final settlement of the seabed boundary for 50 years, and in the meantime gave Australia 50 percent of the revenue from the Greater Sunrise field.

The existing gas field off of East Timor's coast only has about 10 years' life left, and the East Timor government depends on gas revenues for 95 percent of its income, so it was very vulnerable in those negotiations. The Australian negotiators could exploit that vulnerability because they had daily updates on how desperate their Timorese opposite numbers were: the Australian Secret Intelligence Service had bugged the prime minister’s and the cabinet offices.

Four ASIS operatives did the job, pretending to be part of a team of Australian aid workers that was renovating East Timor’s government offices. The man who gave the order was Australia’s foreign minister at the time, Alex Downer—who now runs a public relations firm that represents Woodside Petroleum, a major Australian company that was the main beneficiary of the treaty. Funny how things work out.

The operation would never have come to light if the former director of technical operations at ASIS, who led the bugging operation, had not had an attack of conscience on learning of Downer’s link to Woodside. He told East Timor about it, and the Timorese government then brought an action before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague demanding that the CMATS treaty be cancelled.

The Australian government’s response was to arrest the whistle blower and cancel his passport last week so that he could not travel to the Hague to testify, and to raid the Sydney offices of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer who is representing East Timor before the Court.

The documents seized include an affidavit summarising the whistle blower’s testimony at the Court and correspondence between Collaery and his client, Timorese president Xanana Gusmao. It’s more of the same sort of behaviour: the Australian government has decided to brazen it out.

Can Australia get away with this? Not legally. As Collaery says, “It was a carefully premeditated, involved, very lengthy operation with premeditated breaches of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and premeditated breaches of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. This is a criminal conspiracy, a break-in on sovereign territory and a breach of Australian law.” And he has three more whistle blowers lined up to testify too.

But the case may still be settled out of court, because East Timor is still desperate. Woodside has not yet started developing the Greater Sunrise field, and it will never do so if there isn’t a deal. Offer East Timor another 10 percent and a promise to go ahead, and it will probably drop the case. The poor cannot afford justice.

Comments (14) Add New Comment
When did the Aussies become such jerks? They used to have such a nice reputation. Mind you, so did we.
Rating: +14
From my observations Australia has always had more right-wing governments then Canada, although not as far right as the US.

Gwynne Dyer suggests here that is from fear from Asia hanging over them and they would less fearful if they turned all their maps upside-down to they would be above Asia.

I think it because they feel like New Zealand sitting there judging them all the time.
Rating: +6
Just an observation, most of the Australian people and just as shocked and outraged about this as the rest of the world. This was a shameful decision by a small elite in the Government, probably in collaboration with commercial interests.
Rating: +11
I Chandler
" high-tech mass surveillance. That’s the kind of spying that Snowden’s leaks are about"

Snowden, also revealed surveillance of G20 delegates' emails and BlackBerrys. Foreign politicians and officials who took part in two G20 summit meetings in London in 2009 had their computers monitored and their phone calls intercepted on the instructions of their British government hosts, according to documents seen by the Guardian. Some delegates were tricked into using internet cafes which had been set up by British intelligence agencies to read their email traffic.
Rating: +2
Business as Usual
This is just a small encapsulation of business as usual in the western world.
Rating: -2
Gwen Dyer is what Lenin called a "useful idiot".
Rating: -33
Spying for the purpose of bigger profits...
too big to fail...
too big to jail...

Funny how yesterday's "whacko conspiracy theories" have a habit of turning into today's standard operating procedures.

The top tenth of the one percent get what they want, and the bottom 70 percent have no influence on policy, says Noam Chomsky in describing today's "really existing capitalist democracy" (or RECD for short)
Rating: +7
Ed Snowden should have been Time's Man of the Year. He's clearly, hands down had the greatest effect on the planet than the RC's new CEO. A Nobel Prize wouldn't hurt either. Let the Americans try to prosecute him then. We need to encourage whistleblowers. I mean we, the small people.
Rating: +3
Dennis Ryan
I have had the joy of visiting both New Zealand and Australia; the people are great. But, like here, its the politicians who get caught kissing the wrong asses.
Rating: +3
The big corps are pulling all the strings. Somehow we have to get our democracies back from these pricks.
Rating: +4
14 years have gone by since four governments shook hands on a war on East Timor

Where there's financial gain, government knows no shame. It was done in our name, for the oil on East Timor

-East Timor, Ginger Baker Trio, 1994

Some things just don't change
Rating: -4
Rating: +2
Well said, Dyer! Thanks. But no, no, no, it is not about the 10% more. We are doing fine with money. Much to be done to build and strengthen the state, but we are not desperate now. We were desperate in 2002, and even in 2004. Not now!
The arbitration is about relationship change and the exercise of our right to a definitive maritime boundary. The revelation of the dirty behaviour offers Australia a new pair of specs which which it looks at other nations: we are all equal! This, unfortunately, will require that Australia learns a new culture: humility, honesty and responsibility. It is too accustomed with bullying other nations, and the Timorese distaste this behaviour. We will show them that the Timorese cannot be subjected to opportunistic unprincipled political cowboy behaviour of an arrogant Australia.
Of course, we want the oil and gas too. But for that we need to fix the maritime boundary so that we know that what we get is what we are entitled. For that we will not give Australia the free ticket to measure its generosity in terms of percentage. What is ours should ours, and we will help Australia defend what is theirs. This last bit is most often underestimated. But it is true. If anything happens to Australia, or if Australia gets into any armed conflict, our beloved country, Timor-Leste, will be a battle ground! Timor-Leste is the reluctantly admitted sole northern fortress of Australia. History proof that, and Australia should learn to thank our tiny nation. Viva Timor-Leste! Good Luck Australia.
Rating: -4
DeGaulle, Palmerston or Emerson, depending on which flavour you prefer: No nation has friends, only interests.

And I would also point out that, were the shoe on the other foot, the East Timorese government would almost certainly have done the same thing...
Rating: -3
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