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How we tracked Timor killings

The Age - January 23, 1999

Paul Daley, Canberra – Successive Australian governments have had access to intelligence reports on Indonesian troop movements in East Timor, including their skirmishes with Fretilin guerrillas and the killing of civilians in the troubled Indonesian province, since at least 1975.

The Howard Government is considering whether to prematurely open Department of Foreign Affairs archives on Australia's East Timor policy between 1974 and 1976. But intelligence and diplomatic sources have told The Age that a "huge volume" of material detailing the troop movements – and, by implication, Australia's knowledge of them – is likely to remain in military and intelligence agency records indefinitely.

The existence of the material proves beyond doubt that successive Labor and coalition governments have had access to detailed information about atrocities committed by Indonesia's military.

A former senior Australian diplomat has confirmed that the department often received a daily analysis of some of the intelligence material, based largely on intercepted Indonesian military radio signals, which gave details of the movements of the Indonesian Armed Forces in East Timor.

Mr Bruce Haigh – who headed the Department of Foreign Affairs' Indonesia desk from 1984 until 1986 – said the department was given the discretion to send the reports to the minister's office, a practice he routinely followed while Mr Bill Hayden was Foreign Minister.

He said he believed this had been routine practice since the mid-1970s and continued throughout the Hawke and Keating Governments.

"All I know is that the information that was supplied though DSD (the army's Defence Signals Directorate) had been worked on by analysts, because it had obviously been translated. The reports that the department got listed the flights into and out of Dili (by Indonesian troops), the units that were currently based in East Timor, which unit was replacing which unit, and exactly what activities they'd been involved in," Mr Haigh said.

He said the reports often gave the exact time, date and location of military movements, the number of soldiers killed in skirmishes with Fretilin and whether civilians had been killed or injured.

"I used to get this information in a locked bag and we had a discretion to send it off to the minister's office, and I used to send all this stuff to his office ... and he could ask for more information, but he never did. I don't know whether it got to the minister. It certainly got to his office."

Intelligence gathered by Australia's overseas spy network, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, was also woven into the briefings. However, like the original DSD reports, it is believed that this material is stored outside the foreign affairs archives.

The Federal Government last week confirmed it was considering a premature release of the Department of Foreign Affairs records relating to Australia's East Timor policy between 1974 and 1976.

The archival material would include diplomatic cables, policy documents and ministerial advice. It would cover the final year of Mr Gough Whitlam's administration – when he refused to condemn Indonesia's preparatory invasion of East Timor in 1975 – and Mr Malcolm Fraser's response to Indonesia's full-scale invasion and subsequent annexation of the province.

But diplomatic figures told The Age that even in the "unlikely event" that the Government releases the material, it would claim an exemption under the Commonwealth Archives Act for any documents based largely on intelligence. This would rule out the release of the most publicly enlightening – and, from the Government's perspective, potentially damaging – material.

Sources said a Senate inquiry into Australia's East Timor policy, which is due to begin hearings in July, will also be denied access to the intelligence material.

Despite media speculation that some relevant documents – such as diplomatic cables and policy briefings – had gone missing or been destroyed, a department spokesman insisted that the archives were complete. "A thorough search of all the files was made last year and we are confident that all the relevant material is there," he said.

Mr Haigh said he believed the most highly detailed material was indeed available. But much of it is probably not to be found in the department's files, he said.

"So what's around? Everything is there on one file or another. All the stuff surrounding that period '74 to '76 – if it's not on foreign affairs files, if it's not on defence files, it's on ASIS files, it's on American, Canadian, British and New Zealand files," he said.