Andrew Greene – Australian intelligence operations that took place during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor should stay secret, the head of the country's overseas spy agency will argue today.
In what is believed to be a first, Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) director-general Paul Symon is scheduled to appear at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to put forward his organisation's case.
The spy chief's testimony is in response to Canberra-based academic Clinton Fernandes, who has battled since 2014 for access to the 40-year-old ASIS records on East Timor.
At first ASIS and the National Archives insisted that they could not even confirm or deny whether such records existed, claiming that to do so would cause damage to Australia's "security, defence or international relations".
Professor Fernandes challenged this position in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, and in February the National Archives backed down, conceding it did in fact have such records.
But National Archives insisted it and ASIS needed up to a year to examine the documents to consider whether they could be released.
"It was common knowledge that Australia was involved in East Timor and was very interested in Indonesia in the 1970s," Professor Fernandes told the ABC.
"To say that even a confirmation that ASIS records exist would harm national security seems ridiculous to me.
"We hope in the proceedings to ask questions that make [ASIS director-general Paul Symon] justify why on national security grounds these materials should continue to be withheld 43 years after the event."
The University of New South Wales academic, who is a former Defence intelligence officer, believes the classified ASIS records could offer more insights into the events leading up to the killing of five Australian journalists in Balibo in 1975.
"We hope to find the extent to which the covert instrument of statecraft was involved," Professor Fernandes said.
"The documents would shed light on Australian diplomacy and Indonesian military operations in Timor. The true facts, the details about the diplomacy and the human intelligence before and after that haven't really been exposed.
"It would be a real victory for all of us concerned with transparency. What is the intelligence, the Secret Intelligence Service telling us about developments in Timor or foreknowledge about the killings of those journalists?"
Family of Balibo Five victim want documents made public
Greig Cunningham, the brother of Balibo Five victim Gary Cunningham, told the ABC he supported Professor Fernandes' push for the documents' release.
"All strength to him. I hope he is successful. We have been trying since 1975 to get the truth about what happened in Balibo in that time. We've hit a brick wall all the time from our own Government," Mr Cunningham said. "This is something we desperately need, we desperately want. We want justice."
Mr Cunningham said he believed there was more information about what was happening in Balibo before his brother was killed to which ASIS would have access.
"We've had eyewitness accounts, but we actually know that there is more information that the Indonesians have access to. I believe that ASIS do. But they still are refusing to keep it for us," he said.
"They don't realise the ripples of effect. It destroys some families. It's destroyed the backgrounds to people," he said.
"All we need is the truth. We are not after justice in the respect of vengeance to hang people up or anything like that. We just want to be told what happened. After 43 years, we're entitled to that, and I expect it."
ASIS evidence to be kept secret during private hearing
Much of the proceedings in today's historic tribunal hearing will be kept secret after acting Attorney-General Greg Hunt last week agreed to an ASIS request that part of its evidence be given in private.
In a letter dated April 19 explaining his decision, Mr Hunt said he had "given serious consideration to all the material and the reasons for and against the disclosure of the information"."I have determined that the disclosure of this information would be contrary to the public interest by reason that it would prejudice the security, defence or international relations of Australia," the letter said.
"Therefore I am satisfied that it is necessary to issue a public interest certificate to protect the information they contain. This certificate will also cover any information given as evidence that discloses the contents of the confidential affidavit."
Professor Fernandes said the move meant ASIS would be able to give its evidence in secret and he would not be able to hear it, but will later be asked by the tribunal to respond to it.
Records sought on Australian links to CIA plot in Chile
Among the historic ASIS records Professor Fernandes is also hoping to have released are those covering the spy agency's operations in Chile before the 1973 coup.
Chilean president Salvadore Allende was overthrown by military forces who installed dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Two officers from ASIS were stationed in Santiago following a formal request from the United States, but little else is known about their activities.
"ASIS ran agents in Chile for the United States, and if the United States can release 16,000 pages of records on its involvement in the coup in Chile, surely Australia can do the same," Professor Fernandes said.