Victoria Police and the Australian Federal Police had a sharp disagreement about the extent of confidential briefings given to The Australian newspaper in order to persuade it to hold off publication of its scoop in a joint anti terrorism operation, the Melbourne Magistrates Court heard this morning.
Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana of the Victoria Police, then in charge of counter terrorism, said he had been “dumb founded” when informed that the Australian Federal Police had told reporter Cameron Stewart that a terrorist attack was being planned on Australian soil — a fact he had not previously known.
In the third day of the committal hearing against Simon Artz, the man accused of being Stewart’s source, the court heard evidence that senior Victorian Police were dismayed that the Australian Federal Police had chosen to give Stewart a full briefing, but felt they had been “trumped” because a Memorandum of Understanding between the forces gave responsibility for media management to the AFP.
Under cross examination by Artz’s counsel, Mr Bill Stuart, Fontana said that on 31 July, he had been told by an Assistant Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police that Stewart had been briefed. The Federal Police Assistant Commissioner told him that Stewart had known only of the international side of Operation Neath, not that a domestic attack was planned.
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Fontana agreed that he had said words to the effect of “For God’s sake you didn’t tell him did you?” and that the reply had been “Yes I did.”
Fontana told the court “I was a little bit dumbfounded.”
Fontana said that later, when The Australian published news of the raid, he and other members of the Victoria Police had been upset at the extent and detail of the information in the report.
He agreed with Mr Stuart that it seemed a serious effort had been made to give Stewart a very lengthy briefing, containing a high level of detail.
However, he acknowledged that the disclosure had been sanctioned, and that dealing with the leak, under the Memorandum of Agreement, had been the job of the AFP.
The court also heard that on 31 July 2009, the day after the police became aware of the leak to The Australian, Artz had filed an information report saying that he had met Stewart the previous day, but that not all the police involved were fully informed about this until later.
Up until the leak to Stewart, Victoria Police had advocated holding off conducting raids until the 11 August in the hope of gathering more evidence about individuals.
Other members of the joint operation, including the AFP, had advocated 4 August. After the leak became known, it was “a factor” in the decision to act on the earlier date. The Director of Public Prosecutions had told police that sufficient information had been gathered to support charges against the suspected terrorists some days before the decision was made.
Fontana agreed with Mr Stuart that at the time of the leak to Stewart “hundreds” of people in the various forces involved in the joint operation had known about it.
Earlier, Deputy Commisisoner Peter Drennan of the AFP told the court that he had been present in the room on 30 July when Acting Commissioner Tony Negus had conducted telephone negotiations with the then editor of The Australian, Paul Whittaker. Negus had been trying to persuade Whittaker not to publish news of the counter terrorism operation in the next day’s paper.
Drennan said he had not been able to hear Whittaker’s side of the conversation, but had heard Negus given Whittaker information, including that lives would be at risk if he published.
It was a “robust” conversation, but not a shouting match, he said.”It was a matter of enormous significance and great concern…it was a conversation I would expect two senior people to have in these circumstances,” he said.