East Timor Complains About Australian Spying On Oil And Gas Negotiations / Australia Detains Whistleblower  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , , ,

I recently read John Le Carre's latest book, "A Delicate Truth", and today's news stories about Australian intelligence agencies spying on East Timor's government as it negotiated with Australia over oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea did leave a similar bitter taste in the mouth.

The SMH has a report on the case - ASIO raids office of lawyer Bernard Collaery over East Timor spy claim

ASIO officers have allegedly detained a man and raided the office of a lawyer who claims that Australian spies bugged the cabinet room of East Timor's government during negotiations over oil and gas deposits. Attorney-General George Brandis confirmed last night that he had issued a search warrant for a Canberra address and that ASIO had executed it, seizing a number of documents "on the grounds that [they] contained intelligence related to security matters". The current director general of ASIO, David Irvine, was head of ASIS when the alleged bugging operation against East Timor took place.

Lawyer Bernard Collaery is representing the East Timorese government in the Hague as it seeks arbitration over a treaty it signed with Australia over the lucrative deposits, which it has since declared invalid. East Timor, also known as Timor Leste, will tender evidence of the eavesdropping as part of its case.

Mr Collaery, who has just arrived in the Hague, told Fairfax Media the raids were a "disgrace". He said the man ASIO had detained in Australia was a whistleblower who had led the Australian Secret Intelligence Serice operation to bug the cabinet room in East Timor. ...

East Timor alleges that former foreign minister Alexander Downer dispatched a team of ASIS officers to East Timor's capital, Dili, to bug the government's cabinet room and Prime Minister's office in 2004. ... At the time of the alleged ASIS operation, the two countries were negotiating a treaty covering the Greater Sunrise oil and gas deposits, worth many billions of dollars and the fledgling country's major source of revenue. ...

The negotiations over the Greater Sunrise were tense and Mr Downer was eventually forced to give East Timor a greater share of the deposits after public outrage here and in East Timor.

The SBS report on the subject notes that the Australian foreign minister at the time, Alexander Downer, went on to become a lobbyist for Woodside after he left politics - PM defends ASIO raid on Timor lawyer's office.

Lawyers for the tiny nation argue the Howard government used the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) to spy on the East Timorese government to give Australia an unfair advantage in talks over the resources deal and a benefit to Woodside.

On Wednesday, officers from Australia's domestic intelligence agency, ASIO - on the orders of Senator Brandis - raided the Canberra office of lawyer Bernard Collaery, who is in the Netherlands preparing for the case. ASIO officers also reportedly interviewed a former senior ASIS agent who was expected to give evidence at The Hague, and cancelled his passport.

Mr Collaery says the ASIS agent had decided to blow the whistle on the 2004 operation because former foreign minister Alexander Downer had, after leaving politics, become a lobbyist for Woodside.

Crikey's Bernard Keane notes that US style tactic for suppressing whistleblowers are being adopted here (it's worth noting these revelations aren't part of the endless series of information dumpes coming from Edward Snowden) - The war on whistleblowers — it’s come to Australia.

To the extent that it hadn’t before, the war on whistleblowers and journalists that has been waged in the United States and the United Kingdom for the past several years has now been opened in Australia in the past 24 hours.

The Prime Minister’s attack yesterday on the ABC, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s unusual direct intervention with the ABC managing director Mark Scott, the smear campaign directed at Scott and The Guardian by loyalist media and then the remarkable news that ASIO had raided a Canberra lawyer’s office to seize information relating to an action brought by Timor-Leste in the International Court of Justice, are all profoundly concerning and all very familiar.

The Timor-Leste matter is entirely separate from the the ongoing Snowden revelations. The information was seized by ASIO agents in a raid on the office of Bernard Collaery, who was ACT attorney-general in the Kaine Liberal government in the late 1980s, authorised by current Attorney-General George Brandis under a remarkably wide warrant. It reveals that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service used Australia’s aid program to Timor-Leste as a cover for bugging the East Timorese cabinet to advantage the Howard government in commercial negotiations. The whistleblower who revealed this particularly shabby and highly damaging operation was also detained.

That whistleblower, said to be a former senior ASIS official, has not approached the media but is instead providing evidence in the legal action brought by Timor-Leste. In a crude attempt to prevent the former official from giving evidence in The Hague, his passport has now been cancelled. This particular dirty laundry goes back nearly a decade: the current head of ASIO, David Irvine, headed ASIS when it undertook this commercial espionage for the Howard government in 2004.

We’ve seen such tactics before, time and again, almost to the point of ritual, from the Obama administration in response to leaks by national security whistleblowers and their reporting by journalists: distract from the information revealed by attacking media outlets and journalists, suggest they are harming national security and should be prosecuted, attempt to discredit the revelations and use whatever legal measures are possible to harass whistleblowers and journalists, including, if necessary, anti-terrorism legislation.

The behaviour of the Abbott government in relation to the Indonesian phone-tapping story perfectly fits this pattern. While admitting that the revelations were a genuine story, both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull have attacked the ABC, which partnered with The Guardian in breaking the story. In a remarkable statement yesterday, Abbott suggested the ABC had breached its own act by “advertising a left-wing British newspaper”. When Katharine Murphy of The Guardian asked him whether the ABC’s partnering with Fairfax or News Corp to break stories was also “advertising”, Abbott refused to answer.

The ABC has a look at the legality of the events - Would spying on East Timor by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service be illegal?.

The location of the sea boundaries between Australia and East Timor has been an issue of contention between the two countries since East Timor attained independence in 2002. Their differing positions matter because there are major oil and gas reserves lying beneath the Timor Sea, known as the Sunrise and Troubadour deposits.

Following a series of negotiations, Australia and East Timor signed the CMATS treaty on January 12, 2006 and it came into force on February 23, 2007. The purpose of the CMATS treaty was "to allow the exploitation of the Greater Sunrise gas and oil resources" by providing for "equal sharing of the upstream government revenues flowing from the project". It was also agreed that Australia and East Timor would not make further claims over territory in the Timor Sea for 50 years.

The Sunrise project was to be developed by private oil and gas companies including Woodside, Shell and ConocoPhillips.

Both the Australian and East Timorese governments supported the treaty at the time it was signed, although Dr Clive Schofield of the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources Security at the University of Wollongong notes some have argued that "the treaty is inequitable, favouring Australia at East Timor's expense and that it is the consequence of an unfair bargaining process"

The Age has some commentary recommending a fair border be established - Heed law of the sea and set a fair Timor border.

Indonesia isn't the only country in our region upset about Australia's spying. East Timor has accused Australia not just of spying on it, but of doing so for economic gain. Earlier this year, East Timor launched an arbitration process arguing that a key treaty concerning lucrative oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea was not valid because Australia had spied on Timor's negotiating team and bugged the Timorese cabinet room. ...

Many hoped the Australian-led peacekeeping mission in 1999 would not only be a great redeeming act, but would mark the beginning of a new era in which Australia would finally and unreservedly respect the sovereignty of its tiny neighbour. However, three years later, in 2002, two months before East Timor's independence, Australia made a decision that set a very different tone. It withdrew its recognition of the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

By turning its back on the independent umpire, Australia knew East Timor would have no legal avenue to stop Australia from unilaterally depleting contested oil and gas resources in the Timor Sea. This gave Australia an immense advantage when it begrudgingly agreed to sit down at the negotiating table in 2005.

East Timor, understandably, like any sovereign country, wanted to establish permanent maritime boundaries and it wanted to do so in accordance with international law. Australia had other ideas and successfully jostled Timor into yet another temporary resource-sharing agreement that required the establishment of permanent boundaries to be postponed for 50 years.

At the beginning of 2006 the two countries signed the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea, which would split 50-50 the upstream revenues to be generated by the massive Greater Sunrise gas field.

The field, which is expected to generate about $40 billion in government revenues, lies just over 100 kilometres from East Timor's coastline. If permanent maritime boundaries were established in accordance with current international law the field would lie entirely within East Timor's exclusive economic zone.

Since the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, international law has strongly favoured median line boundaries between countries less than 400 nautical miles apart - that is, draw a line halfway between the two countries' coastlines. While there are 80 examples of the median line resolving such claims, there is only one exception; the 1972 Australian-Indonesian seabed boundary.


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