Australia accused of “excessive and unnecessary” secrecy

Updated 28 minutes ago

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – Australia’s suppression of information deemed essential to a free and open media is at the center of accusations that the country has become one of the world’s most secretive democracies.

Last week, a former Australian spy was convicted for his unconfirmed role as a whistleblower that exposed a spy operation against the government of East Timor.

This is the latest high profile case in a national system in which secrecy laws, some dating from the colonial era, are commonly used to suppress information. Police have also threatened to indict journalists who exposed allegations of war crimes against Australian special forces in Afghanistan, or the bureaucrats’ plan to allow an intelligence agency to spy on Australian citizens.

Australians don’t even know the name of the former spy convicted on Friday. The Canberra court registry listed him as “Witness K”. His lawyer more respectfully called him “Mr. K” in court.

K spent the two hearing days in a box constructed from black screens to hide his identity. The public and the media were kicked out of the courtroom when classified evidence was discussed, which was about half the time.

The only sign that someone was actually inside the box was when a voice said “guilty” after K was asked how he pleaded.

The Australian government declined to comment on allegations that K led an Australian Secret Service operation that wiretapped government offices in the Timor-Leste capital in 2004, during negotiations over the sharing of oil and gas revenues from the United States. seabed that separate the two countries.

The government canceled K’s passport before he testified before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2014 to support the East Timorese, who argued that the treaty was invalid because Australia did not had not negotiated in good faith by engaging in espionage.

There was no evidence heard in open court of a wiretapping operation, which media reported was carried out under the guise of a foreign aid program.

K was given a three-month suspended prison sentence. If he had been sent to jail, there had been court orders to cover up his former spy career by restricting what he could say to his friends and associates to explain his predicament.

He faced up to two years in prison. Since its breach, Australia has continued to tighten controls on secrecy, raising the maximum sentence to 10 years.

As lacking in transparency as K’s prosecution was, it was a big improvement over the Australian treatment of another rogue intelligence officer known as Witness J.

J has been described by the media as possibly the only person in Australian history to have been tried, sentenced and imprisoned in secret. But no one seems to know for sure.

As with K, it is illegal to reveal the identity of J.

J pleaded guilty in a closed courtroom at the same Canberra court complex in 2018 to charges relating to the mismanagement of classified information and the potential disclosure of the identities of Australian agents. He spent 15 months in prison.

The secret court hearing and imprisonment only became public at the end of 2019 because J took legal action against the Australian Capital Territory government, claiming his human rights had been violated by the police who raided his prison cell looking for a memoir he was writing.

Indignant lawyers then called for the first major revision of national secrecy laws since 2010. Whistleblowers as well as journalists are currently threatened by more than 70 anti-terrorism and security laws adopted by Parliament since the attacks of 11 September in the United States.

Andrew Wilkie, a former government intelligence analyst whistleblower who is now an independent federal lawmaker, is a vocal critic of national security used as an excuse to bow to paranoia and protect embarrassment.

Wilkie opposed the prosecution of K and his former lawyer Bernard Collaery. Collaery is fighting a charge that he conspired with K to reveal secrets in East Timor and wants his trial to be opened.

“I have no doubt that one of the reasons for the secrecy around the K and Collaery affair is the enormous political embarrassment we spied on one of the poorest countries in the world to gain the upper hand in a trade negotiation. “, Wilkie mentioned.

Wilkie left his intelligence post at the Office of National Assessments days before Australian troops joined US and British forces during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He publicly argued that Iraq did not represent a threat sufficient to warrant an invasion and that there was no evidence linking the Iraqi government to al-Qaida.

“I basically accused the government of lying,” Wilkie said.

Although the government tried to discredit him, Wilkie said he had never been threatened with prosecution for revealing classified information.

For many, Australian authorities went too far in June 2019 in their attempt to hunt down whistleblowers, intimidate journalists and protect government secrets.

Police raided the News Corp reporter ‘s home. Annika Smethurst and, the next day, the headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Both media had used leaked government documents as a basis for public interest journalism.

Search warrants were issued under section 70 of the Crimes Act 1914, which prohibited a government employee from sharing information without the permission of a supervisor.

This section has since been replaced by national security legislation which expanded the crime to include a government employee sharing opinions or reporting conversations with others.

Media law experts Johan Lidberg and Denis Muller have said Australia is the only country in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance – which includes the United States, Britain, Canada and the United States. New Zealand – which gives its security agencies the power to issue search warrants against journalists in the hunt for public interest whistleblowers in the name of national security.

Police ruled in May last year that they did not have enough evidence to charge Smethurst, the journalist, for an article published in April 2018. They had reported that two heads of government departments were planning to create new espionage powers that would allow an intelligence agency to legally spy. Australian citizens.

Prosecutors also ruled in October last year that “the public interest does not require prosecution” against ABC reporter Dan Oakes over a televised investigation broadcast in July 2017 that allegedly killed Australian soldiers. unarmed men and children in Afghanistan as part of potential war crimes.

But David McBride, a former Australian military lawyer who admits to leaking classified documents to the ABC, is battling multiple charges. He calculates that he faces up to 50 years in prison for being a whistleblower.

There have been two parliamentary press freedom inquiries since the police raids, but progress towards change has been criticized as slow and weak.

The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security, which has approved many problematic security laws, said many proposals for change have warned that “the balance in legislation and culture within the Australian government is shifting. is far from transparency and commitment to secrecy. ”

A Senate press freedom committee inquiry last month made several recommendations, mostly for further government investigation. The committee asked whether offenses relating to secret information should be amended to include a requirement of harm, and whether journalists should still have to prove that an unauthorized disclosure was in the public interest.

Wilkie, the lawmaker, argues that Australia has become a “pre-police state” thanks to its adherence to secrecy.

“It is now commonplace when a government is covering up something in a national security need for secrecy,” Wilkie said. “We didn’t flinch anymore. We should be outraged.

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