Murdered Australian journalist Greg Shackleton (Images: AAP/MUP)

For decades, Australia’s intelligence services have denied having any foreknowledge that the Balibo Five were at risk from Indonesian forces.

Intelligence services ostensibly only learnt shortly afterwards that the five — journalists working in then-Portuguese Timor in October 1975, reporting on secret Indonesian military activity — had been murdered by Indonesian special forces.

But Oil Under Troubled Water, a new book by Bernard Collaery, presents a strong case that Australian spies knew that Indonesia regarded the journalists as a “hurdle to be got over” before Indonesian military preparations could ramp up ahead of its December 1975 invasion, beginning a quarter-century occupation of the province.

In Oil Under Troubled Water, Collaery — currently being prosecuted by the Morrison government along with a former ASIS officer Witness K for revealing ASIS’ illegal bugging operation against Timor-Leste — explores the history of Australia’s relationship with what is now Timor-Leste.

A key revelation of the books is that Timor-Leste has been deprived of billions of dollars in resource revenue as a result of the deliberate hiding of the discovery of significant helium deposits in petrochemical reserves beneath the Timor Sea from both Timor-Leste and the United Nations.

Remarkably, Australia itself has also lost access to this strategic asset by allowing American multinational ConocoPhillips to take control of the helium.

Collaery has also unearthed documents that contradict the longstanding official line on what the Australian government knew about the Balibo Five — Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie and Gary Cunningham — in the lead up to the Suharto regime’s invasion of Portugese Timor in December 1975.

A sixth journalist, Australian Roger East, was murdered by Indonesian forces while investigating the disappearance of the five.

Collaery shows British ambassador to Indonesia Sir John Ford reported to London in September 1975 about clandestine Indonesian military activity in Portugese Timor ahead of its planned invasion:

The only limitation on clandestine activity now appears to be its exposure. The Indonesians are clearly worried about this. According to the Australians, president Suharto told general Yoga, the head of Bakin [the then-named Indonesian intelligence agency] that he would not agree, for the present, to step up clandestine activities beyond their present level. A particular hurdle to be got over is a plane load of journalists and politicians who are due to visit Timor, apparently at Fretilin request, to investigate allegations of Indonesian intervention.

The Suharto regime had a history of heavy suppression of journalists inside its own borders and in West Papua; “getting over the hurdle” could have had only one meaning.

But this “sensitive” information obtained by an Australian agency — Collaery believes it must be ASIS — via a “top level liaison” with Bakin apparently wasn’t sufficient for the agency to alert the then-Whitlam government or to raise concerns about the ramifications of Ford’s phrase “getting over the hurdle”.

The Whitlam government at that stage was about to become embroiled in a life-or-death constitutional struggle, and Gough Whitlam was about to dismiss ASIS head Bill Robertson.

The Ford letter also sits poorly with the finding of inspector-general of intelligence and security Bill Blick’s 2002 review of allegations.

Blick found that another agency, the Defence Signals Directorate, did not have “intelligence material that could have alerted the government to the possibility of harm to the newsmen” and that “intelligence material was passed rapidly to government and there was no holding back or suppression of data by the agencies tasked with providing such material”.

The deniability of any foreknowledge or role of either Australian intelligence agencies or the Whitlam government itself in Indonesia’s destabilisation and invasion of Portugese Timor has been a staple of the official narrative around the murders of the Balibo Five — one that has united intelligence establishment figures and Whitlam apologists alike.

The British government has also come under pressure from the families of the two British journalists of the Balibo Five to explain what it knew ahead of and after the killings.

Collaery raises a wider question if the John Ford letter is correct. We’ve known since 1999, when the intelligence archive of Soviet defector Vasili Mitrokhin became available, that Yuri Andropov’s KGB had succeeded in tapping the communications of Henry Kissinger, who in 1975 was president Gerald Ford’s secretary of state and who accompanied the US president to Jakarta to meet with Suharto on the eve of the invasion.

It was at that meeting that Ford effectively greenlighted the invasion by telling Suharto “we will understand and not press you on the issue”.

Kissinger’s only concerns were that the invasion not commence until Ford had left the country, and that US weapons not be linked to the invasion.

Given Australia-US intelligence sharing, Kissinger is also likely to have been aware of Indonesia’s clandestine military activities in the lead-up to the invasion and the “hurdle to be got over”, via Australian sources.

As a result, the KGB may also have been aware that, effectively, ASIS or another Australian intelligence agency had had the opportunity to intervene before the murders of the Balibo Five, but refrained from doing so.

Was such information — which would have proved deeply embarrassing both to agencies and to Indonesia — ever used by the Soviets as leverage against Australian intelligence agents?

It’s another sordid moment in the long history of Australia’s neo-colonialist treatment of the people of Timor, driven by an obsession with exploiting its petrochemical resources.

Peter Fray

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