The Australian Federal Police is attempting to suppress details of its dealings with The Australian over the controversial Cameron Stewart scoop concerning the 2009 anti-terrorism Operation Neath.

The material is an affidavit sworn by the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Tony Negus, in January 2010, and concerns his conversations with the then editor of The Australian, Paul Whittaker, who is now the editor of The Daily Telegraph.

Negus was at the time desperate to contain the security breach of the leak to Stewart. He believed that premature publication of the information held by Stewart could trigger a terrorist attack. All the indications are that Whittaker played hard ball, resulting in Stewart getting a sensitive and comprehensive briefing on material that was of extreme sensitivity.

Crikey understands the contents of the affidavit is the same material that formed part of the joint report by the Victorian Office of Police Integrity and its federal counterpart, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, which News Limited took Federal Court action to suppress early last year.

That report made adverse comment on the conduct of The Australian, but has never been released. See here for Crikey’s previous coverage of what became known as the “Ozleaks” case.

Yesterday in the Melbourne Magistrates Court the AFP foreshadowed that it would move to apply for suppression of the Negus affidavit, which is presently contained in the hand up brief compiled by the Office of Police Integrity in the case against Simon Artz, the former Detective Senior Constable accused of being Stewart’s source for the scoop.

The Victoria Police also moved to seek suppression of some of its material. The matters are now listed to be heard on October 14. The committal hearing in the Artz case is expected to be in early November.

Crikey intends to seek leave to contest the applications for suppression.

The AFP, the OPI and Simon Artz’s lawyers all declined to provide comment for this story.

This ongoing affair concerns Stewart’s August 4, 2009 Quills Award-winning scoop, which broke the news on a police anti-terrorism operation on the very day that raids took place and suspects were arrested. Australian Federal Police believed that premature publication of the scoop could trigger a terrorist attack.

The resulting inquiry into Stewart’s source and the AFP dealings resulted in a joint OPI-ACLEI report, which The Australian sought to suppress through a Federal Court action. The ACLEI cut a deal in which it withdrew from the action and agreed to compile another report that did not canvass the conduct of The Australian.

The OPI and News Limited settled the rest of the case in the middle of last year, with both sides conceding ground. The OPI agreed to edit the report to remove those parts that went to the conduct of The Australian. News Limited abandoned its attempt to have the OPI’s inquiry ruled invalid, and all the evidence suppressed.

The new ACLEI report report, released months later, (numbered 04/2010) was into whether the AFP had made unauthorised disclosures, or whether its conduct was corrupt, in the sense of  providing sensitive information to The Australian in return for favourable media coverage.

It detailed how the AFP briefed Stewart on the raids after finding out that he already held accurate information, and makes clear the extreme pressure the AFP felt that it was under in its dealings with The Australian.

The sequence of events laid out by the ACLEI report was that Stewart, having made his first approach to the AFP, on July 30, 2009 instructed them to negotiate with editor Whittaker about security concerns. At that stage, The Australian was planning to run the article the next day.

The ACLEI report said:

“The paramount concern of various AFP witnesses, including Mr Negus, in dealing with the newspaper was to prevent the possibility of a domestic terror attack which, in their view, might be precipitated by premature publication of the details which the journalist knew about Operation Neath. The AFP’s concern was not based on mere speculation, but had a solid foundation in the intelligence gathered as part of Operation Neath. After being informed by Mr Negus of the seriousness of the situation, the Editor of the newspaper agreed to hold over publication of the Operation Neath information. The AFP leadership perceived that they needed to do more to protect Operation Neath from further compromise. Accordingly, the AFP offered a briefing to the journalist, based on what information was anticipated would be made publicly available soon after the arrest of suspects, and commenced discussions about an agreed publication date that would minimise the various risks associated with Operation Neath.”

It is details of those dealings that form the kernel of the foreshadowed suppression order by the AFP.

The ACLEI investigation found that the AFP had acted properly in briefing Stewart, even though the information provided was “sensitive” and might have been protected under the law, and even though a less extensive briefing might have met the same objectives. The AFP had felt the briefing was necessary to “gain and exert continuing control over the threat” posed by The Australian’s capacity to publish.

The ACLEI report said:

“Accordingly, officers of senior rank briefed the journalist, based on the information that would be tendered to court if arrests were made, and agreement was reached that the draft text of the resulting articles would be vetted by the Operation Neath partner agencies, which occurred. In the final event, The Australian withheld some information from publication at the AFP’s request.”

Part of the deal was that The Australian would run the article only in the final edition of the newspaper on the morning of the raids, after any risk to safety had passed. In the event, some copies of the story reached Melbourne before the raids had taken place. This led to the newspaper being strongly criticised by the then Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland.

In the months following the OPI investigation, and while the Federal Court case was still proceeding, The Australian conducted a long-running campaign against the OPI and Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland. This campaign included uncritical interviews with some of the police officers who have been at the centre of corruption inquiries.

An OPI report on the circumstances under which Overland resigned from his post earlier this year is expected to be tabled in the Victorian Parliament later this month.

The ACLEI investigation found that as well as Artz, there were two other possible sources of information to Stewart, including a security breach in the AFP Melbourne office, and a production company then filming the work of the AFP for a television series, during which it was informed in general terms about Operation Neath.

The main evidence against Artz is understood to be a statement by Cameron Stewart.

Artz’s committal hearing is expected to begin early next month.

Peter Fray

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