Sunday, February 19, 2012
Secrets, Lies and Perils of a Whistleblower
AT DAWN on the first day of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Saturday September 16, a team of Australian Federal Police and Defence Security personnel arrived at my home, armed with a search warrant.
After some brief discussion they conducted an exhaustive search that included everything in my study and library to the contents of my household garbage. They looked pretty much everywhere, though not, I recall, in my pet cat's litter tray. They also ran a comprehensive search program on my home computer looking for any trace of a long list of highly classified Defence intelligence reports and diplomatic cables.
Hours later the investigators left empty-handed.
The raid was part of a witch-hunt the scope of which has become clear with the recent release of a heavily redacted AFP report. The document, released under Freedom of Information, details the search for the person or group who in 1999 leaked a large number of secret Australian intelligence reports dealing with the tumultuous events leading to East Timor's 1999 independence ballot.
This was Australia's biggest leak of secret defence and intelligence information to the media. While not of the same scale as WikiLeaks' recent publication of US diplomatic cables, the 1999 East Timor leaks involved numerous highly sensitive documents, many classified "Top Secret Codeword", a much higher security classification than any of the WikiLeaks material.
Leaking government documents can be a dangerous business. Next Thursday, in the United States, the man accused of leaking to WikiLeaks, US Army private Bradley Manning, will be arraigned before a military judge at Fort Meade, Maryland. Some of the 22 charges against him, to be read at the beginning of his court martial, include aiding the enemy and wrongfully causing secret intelligence to be published on the internet. The charge of aiding the enemy potentially carries the death penalty, although prosecutors have said they will seek a life sentence if Manning is found guilty of all charges.
In Australia, despite the best efforts of police and Defence Security, the person or people responsible for the 1999 East Timor leaks was not prosecuted. But more than a decade later, the report of Operation Keeve provides a cautionary tale for journalists and whistleblowers about the determination of governments to catch those who break the rules to expose information governments would rather keep hidden. The hunt was pursued over two years and cost taxpayers more than $1.5 million.
As the then adviser to Labor's foreign affairs spokesman, Laurie Brereton, I was one of the key "persons of interest" in the investigation.
THE EAST Timor leaks were always going to create political turmoil. Their effect was to call into question the Howard government's truthfulness as it dealt with East Timor's move to independence from Indonesia.
Privately, the Howard government hoped East Timor would remain an autonomous province within Indonesia. Australian policymakers were also anxious to maintain good relations with Indonesia's powerful military. The then foreign minister, Alexander Downer, repeatedly insisted that violent attacks on Timorese independence supporters were carried out by "rogue elements" - local pro-Indonesian militias - and that the Indonesian military could be trusted to provide security for the self-determination ballot.
However, the series of leaked Defence and DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) documents, reported through 1999 byThe Age, ABC Radio and TV, the Bulletin magazine and other media outlets, told a very different story.
For example, a secret Defence Intelligence Organisation brief, dated March 4, 1999 and reported by the ABC AM program on April 23, reported that "The [Indonesian] military in East Timor are clearly protecting, and in some instances operating with the militias .
[Indonesian military chief] General Wiranto is at least turning a blind eye. The military will continue to support intimidation and violence or at least won't prevent it. Further violence is certain and Dili will be a focus."
A leaked DFAT cable showed the Howard government was not merely reluctant to argue for an international peacekeeping presence in East Timor, but actively worked against the idea. DFAT Secretary Ashton Calvert told the US State Department that talk about peacekeeping was "defeatist".
East Timor did vote for independence and Australia eventually did send in peacekeepers, though only after the Indonesian military had torched Dili, thousands of people had died, and tens of thousands had been forcibly removed to squalid camps in West Timor.
The hunt for the whistleblower, Operation Keeve, began in February 1999. Foreign Minister Downer first called in the AFP after The Age published two articles by Canberra correspondent Paul Daley that reported Australia's embassy in Jakarta had warned that as many as 15,000 people could flee their homes amid a breakdown of law and order in East Timor.
Later, in April, Defence Department Secretary Paul Barratt instructed his security branch to investigate the leak of the March 4 Defence Intelligence brief to ABC Radio. What was named Operation Arbite was later extended to other leaks, and the AFP and Defence Security investigations were combined and carried out from the top secret Defence Signals Directorate.
The investigators threw a wide net to identify the source of the leaks. Media articles were cross referenced against Defence Intelligence and other classified documents with some 36 "primary reports" and 29 "secondary reports" eventually identified as potential source materials. The investigators then tracked access to the documents. This proved too difficult in the case of hard copies, but more progress was made in regard to electronic distribution. Examination of footage of leaked intelligence reports on the ABC 7.30 Report and an ABC Four Corners documentary in February 2000 "suggested that the leaks had come from electronic documents rather than from hard copy." Some 21,600 persons worldwide - less than half of whom, 9600, were actually in Australia - had electronic access to the documents.
A massive data crunching exercise followed, involving access to the telephone call records of nearly 14,000 telephone services totalling more than 77,000 phone calls. Most of these numbers were the phones of Defence personnel with access to the leaked documents. However, the fishing expedition, using information obtained without warrant from telecommunication service providers, included call records of more than 130 private subscribers and in some cases internet usage and mobile phone location data.
Eventually, using new Watson analytic software, the investigation team targeted "a small group of individuals". Other than myself, the names of "persons of interest" have been redacted from the AFP report, but it is clear that as early as December 1999 the investigators had formed a working hypothesis that the secret documents had been leaked by a person or persons in Defence to myself, and then to the media. (Laurie Brereton had exploited the leaks to criticise the Howard government, and my name and contact number appeared at the bottom of Brereton's "timely" media releases.)
The AFP report states, "The accumulation of circumstantial evidence pointed to Philip Dorling receiving the classified documents, either electronically from email transmissions sent by [redacted]. The destination of the emails was believed to be either Philip Dorling's work computer in Parliament House, or his home computer."
The joint investigation team wanted to tap my telephone, but lacked the legal power to do so. In December 1999, at a meeting attended by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the investigators asked whether ASIO could obtain a warrant to intercept "certain telephone services at Parliament House''. The ASIO representatives said no and sent a report to ASIO Director-General Dennis Richardson who wrote: "It is important that the AFP and Defence understand that, unless there is relevance to our functions under the [ASIO] Act, we cannot engage in such activity."
Apparently lacking access to the content of telephone calls or internet activity, the investigators turned to other sources of information.
In February 2000, Defence Department official and Australian National University academic Clive Williams reported a conversation with Professor Des Ball, an expert on intelligence agencies, about his part in the February ABC Four Corners program on East Timor. "When asked about the source of the leaked intelligence documents, Professor Ball speculated that 'they are probably coming from staff in Brereton's office'."
In June 2000, an AFP officer also spoke to Canberra Times editor Jack Waterford who "stated that speculation among journalists was that one source of the leak was an ex-DFAT employee and another was in Laurie Brereton's office''.
Four months later there was the dawn knock on my door and Federal Agent Catherine Castles announced that she had a warrant to search the premises. ACT magistrate Peter Dingwall had apparently been persuaded that the crown jewels of Australian intelligence were somewhere in my home, but the efforts of the AFP and Defence Security officers came to nothing. Had they searched Brereton's Parliament House office, they would have had the same result.
That same morning AFP agents also raided the home of a friend, Captain Clinton Fernandes, an army intelligence officer based in Sydney.
Fernandes was suspended from duty pending further investigation. After a long inquiry he was reinstated and promoted to the rank of major. He has always denied being the source of the leaks. Had the AFP tapped our phone conversations they would have heard lengthy discussion about his PhD thesis on "transformational analysis of the national interest" in Australian foreign policy.
Fernandes later left the army to take up an academic appointment at the Australian Defence Force Academy and as an associate professor now teaches politics and strategic studies to the next generation of Australia's military leaders.
Unlike Fernandes, I declined to be interviewed and I won't be drawn on the source or sources of the leaks. However, I did learn some years ago that the investigators believed they were hunting a person with "a strong sense of injustice about developments in East Timor". That is certainly an inference that could be drawn.
In the end, the East Timor leak investigation came to nothing. The ''highly protected'' AFP report on operations Keeve and Arbite was consigned to the archives, and Australia's Bradley Manning remains at large, a rare case of a whistleblower avoiding retribution.
But the risks are clear - for journalists and for covert sources. In an electronic age there are no fingerprints easier to find than electronic fingerprints. And as the circumstances of Bradley Manning show, the potential consequences for those who blow the whistle can be grave indeed. By Philip Dorling The Age (Melbourne)