Plot thickens in East Timor espionage scandal

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Australian journalist, author, and former senior adviser Niki Savva (Image via YouTube screenshot)

An AFP investigation has begun over information disclosed regarding the East Timor bugging, but John Menadue believes it's a waste of time.

ANDREW WILKIE MP has asked the AFP to investigate the improper disclosure of “protected information” disclosed by News Corp journalist Niki Savva on the ABC Insiders program on 1 July 2018. She said that Attorney General Christian Porter had been given “a very strong recommendation to prosecute” Bernard Collaery and Witness K.

How Savva knew this and who told her is the subject of an AFP investigation requested by Andrew Wilkie. On the basis of previous AFP form, this will go nowhere. 

This is all concerning on many grounds.

First, the Attorney General, Christian Porter, insists that he will not say anything publicly about the prosecution, but a former Liberal Party staffer, Niki Savva, raised the matter on the ABC. This looks to be part of a familiar pattern.

Second, on 3 May 2013, in a press release, Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Attorney General Mark Dreyfus admitted that there were allegations about Australia engaging in espionage in East Timor. Now, five years later, the Attorney General launches prosecutions against Bernard Collaery and Witness K. One could speculate that a Federal election may be in the offing and that the Government wants a security scare.

Third, it is hard to see how the Attorney General can justify presenting to the Parliament legislation to restrict foreign interference in Australia and, at the same time, prosecute Bernard Collaery and Witness K concerning Australian interference in the democratic processes of East Timor, which was authorised directly by the Australian Government. This is hard to beat for hypocrisy.

Fourth, why is News Corp exempted from giving evidence in any prosecution despite Leo Shanahan in The Australian on 29 May 2013 reporting the East Timor bugging? This News Corp disclosure has now been followed by Niki Savva only a week ago. But the ABC staff will have to give evidence of any discussions they might have had with Collaery and Witness K. It looks like a stitch-up for the Government to keep News Corp on side and put the ABC in the firing line.

Fifth, Andrew Wilkie’s request to the AFP to investigate the improper disclosure by Niki Savva is likely to result in a lot of wasted effort. On 27 October 2017, Jack Waterford, in an article in the SMH entitled ‘AWU raids: leaking through the Australian Federal Police sieve’, gives a discouraging account of AFP investigation of leaks.

Edited extracts from that article follow:

The AFP behaves like a government department, not as an independent entity. Mutual dependence is fostered by close scrutiny of budgets and priorities, by regular briefings of ministers in the AFP feeding chain and by a studied reluctance of senior police officers to investigate any matter likely to embarrass the government of the day, or, if embarrassed into a token investigation, to take it to any sort of conclusion…

In the 38 years since the AFP was founded, I can think of only one task it took up that caused any problems or embarrassment to government. That was the investigation and prosecution of Liberal renegade and (Labor-appointed) speaker Peter Slipper for alleged rorts of travel expenses. No doubt the investigation was exhaustive and completely professional; it failed, however, to result in a conviction. By the time Slipper was investigated and prosecuted, he was, in any event, a liability to the Gillard Government and it is unlikely that anyone would have regarded the AFP as being particularly treacherous in pursuing loud public allegations being made about him.

Meanwhile, intense AFP investigations into leaks by ministers, staffers, into allegations of bribery and corruption by mates of ministers in the Australian Wheat Board or referrals of matters to the AFP by oppositions (of whatever stripe) have failed to excite any AFP enthusiasm, or forensic success. In many cases, diligent officers trying to do their duty are frustrated by the obvious antipathy of senior officers to particular investigations…

Not that there is any risk of the wrong person being charged. The successful investigation of leaks has never been an AFP specialty. I can think of only one leaker, a young Aboriginal public servant, ever found by detective work…

How well do I recall the remark of a senior AFP officer, commenting when ministers pretended to want an inquiry into the source of a leak of a classified document from Alexander Downer’s office to ideological soul mate Andrew Bolt. He remarked that the detectives who couldn’t solve that one wouldn’t be able to find their bums with both hands.

This article was originally published on John Menadue's blog 'Pearls and Irritations'John Menadue is a commentator, businessman and former diplomat. You can follow John on Twitter @johnmenadue.


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