The Australian newspaper has been accused of endangering the lives of Victorian police officers by revealing details of the arrest of terror suspects before the arrests took place.

Victoria Police Commissioner, Simon Overland, claimed today’s front page story under the headline “Army Base Terror Plot Foiled”, was so risky that it “could have claimed many lives”.

The Australian has dismissed this, arguing it published the scoop by it associate editor, Cameron Stewart, only after it was given the nod by the Australian Federal Police and that no papers with the story were available until after the raids.

However, the AFP Acting Commissioner, Tony Negus, has agreed with his Victorian counterpart that the timing was unacceptable. He told the media this morning: “As Simon said it is unfortunate that it was published before the execution of the warrants. We expected it would be later in the morning.”

The story, which was only run in the national newspaper’s second edition, revealed that federal and state police were “poised to swoop on members of the suspected terror cell as early as this morning.” It gave details of the alleged terrorists’ intended targets and who recruited them.

Overland claimed the newspaper’s second edition was available in Melbourne as early as 1.30am, while the arrests did not happen until around 4.30am, creating a real risk that members of the suspected cells could have been tipped off beforehand.

The Australian’s editor in chief, Chris Mitchell, denied the paper compromised the operation. He said, “The Australian does not accept that the paper was available for sale at this time.”

This morning Cameron Stewart told Jon Faine on ABC’s 774:

I discovered the rump of the story late last week and went to the federal police with my story to seek comment and they requested that we did not publish because it might compromise the operation. That was what their feeling was and so we said fine.

He also said:

As far as we were concerned, they (the AFP) said it was alright to publish so we did. They were comfortable with us publishing so we did.

Crikey understands that The Australian entered a “quid pro quo” arrangement with the AFP. In return for The Australian agreeing to co-operate, the police agreed to tip off the paper about when it could run the story.

The Australian also agreed to a number of “elaborate” steps to ensure the paper didn’t fall into the hands of one of the suspected terrorists. It ensured the story did not run in the first edition. It stopped publication of the material on the website until after the raids and it may have also held back at least some copies of the second edition from sale.

Nevertheless Commissioner Overland was talking tough this morning. He told a press conference: “We will be vigorously pursing the leak from my end, and I expect that federal authorities will be doing the same thing.”

In reply, Chris Mitchell accused Overland of “sour grapes” because Stewart’s story gave the AFP more of the credit for the raids.

According to one senior source it was clear from the Cameron Stewart story that the AFP/security agencies/Vic Police had shared the results of their “electronic surveillance” with Stewart, who then reported what the surveillance showed. That’s illegal, the sourced noted, so must have been done either corruptly or as a favour to Stewart.

In the unlikely event that the Victoria Police follows through, it has at least three criminal laws at its disposal. Section 43 of the Crimes Act (1914) prohibits attempts to pervert the course of justice. Section 34ZS of the ASIO Act (1979) prohibits disclosure of operational information obtained from a warrant and section 18 of the same Act makes it an offence to distribute information which has come to the knowledge of an employee or officer of ASIO. If Victoria Police takes this course, it may seek a court order for Cameron Stewart to reveal his source, or, in a worst case scenario, he could be charged with aiding and abetting.

But this seems unlikely, given that The Australian was acting with the knowledge and approval of the other police force involved.