The government’s move to prosecute a whistleblower and his lawyer for revealing an ASIS scandal illustrates its determination to send a signal to all potential whistleblowers.
For several years, Crikey has been covering the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers, in which a number of intelligence whistleblowers, even those who reveal vast incompetence or illegality within US intelligence agencies, are prosecuted by Obama’s Department of Justice. Currently, former CIA analyst John Kiriakou is in jail for revealing the CIA’s use of torture — the only person to be jailed over the agency’s use of torture, or its efforts to halt and spy on the congressional committee inquiry into its use of torture.
As Fairfax’s Tom Allard has revealed today in a fantastic scoop, that war on whistleblowers has now reached new heights in Australia, with Attorney-General George Brandis demanding the prosecution of the former ASIS officer who revealed ASIS’s shameful spying on the East Timorese Cabinet, with the possibility of a jail term. And Brandis appears to have gone further than Obama’s DoJ, also pursuing lawyer Bernard Collaery. As Crikeyreported in May, Collaery has not returned to Australia from London, where he has been based while pursuing East Timor’s case against Australia at the Hague, having been tipped off that he would be prevented from leaving again if he did. The ASIS whistleblower — whom we can’t identify under intelligence laws — had his passport seized in an ASIO raid last year and has been prevented from leaving Australia.
However gung-ho Brandis might be to imprison a whistleblower and a lawyer who assisted him — and let’s not forget the ABC, which broke the story, is in the frame too — there’s one person who will be feeling very uncomfortable about the prospect of the East Timor matter seeing the inside of a courtroom: Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Vivienne Thom. Thom’s account of the circumstances relating to the ASIS whistleblower’s interaction with her predecessor, Ian Carnell, have been directly and explicitly contradicted by a statement in Hansard from Collaery. Thom has refused to even acknowledge any contradiction, let alone explain why Collaery says he has documents showing Carnell advised the whistleblower to pursue his own legal action, and Carnell acknowledged the engagement of Collaery by the whistleblower, when Thom claims no such interaction ever happened.
“Western governments want to send a clear signal to potential whistleblowers of the terrible punishment that awaits them if they do so.”
Let’s be clear about Thom’s position on this matter — it isn’t that Carnell said something different to what Collaery claims, or that there has been some misinterpretation: she insists that Carnell has told her there was never any such exchange of correspondence between the whistleblower and Carnell at all.
If Brandis and the Keystone Cops of the AFP — last seen apologising to the Seven Network for the Schapelle Corby raid and admitting they released confidential material on their own officers and suspects — manage to get Collaery and the whistleblower into court, the strength of Carnell’s and Thom’s denials will be put under judicial scrutiny, perhaps with Thom in the witness box. It will also ensure plenty of coverage of how ASIS used the cover of an aid program to one of the world’s poorest countries in order to help the Howard government better exploit East Timor over access to natural resources — unless prosecutors move to gag reporting of the trial.
Presumably Brandis and his chief of staff, former ASIO head Paul O’Sullivan, have thought through the risks of prosecution and assessed them against the broader objective, which is the same as that of the Obama administration. At a time when whistleblowers the world over are revealing scandals from within intelligence agencies, Western governments want to send a clear signal to potential whistleblowers of the terrible punishment that awaits them if they do so. That’s why the government has now proposed “Snowden amendments” to intelligence services Acts to address the potential collection of documents by whistleblowers, and proposed a draconian restriction on the reporting of “special intelligence operations” that even News Corporation complained was an attack on free speech and a free press. And these will be backed up by a data retention regime that will make it easier to track down whistleblowers and the politicians and journalists who deal with them.
For Brandis and intelligence agencies, the pursuit of Collaery and the whistleblower is intended as an exemplary punishment, to intimidate all those who would reveal the incompetence and illegal behaviour of our intelligence agencies.