We deserve to know the full story of Australian complicity in East Timor

An important story that deserves widespread Australian coverage, on a period in our history that the political elites, of all sides, would like to forget. This story appears in today’s Canberra Times and is written by Philip Dorling:

Independent Federal MP Robert Oakeshott has called on Defence Minister John Faulkner to release secret intelligence papers that would shed new light on the deaths of the Balibo Five journalists in East Timor in 1975. Mr Oakeshott has used the recent passage of the Federal Government’s freedom of information reform legislation to highlight the Defence Department’s continuing refusal to release 41 current intelligence reports written in the lead up to Indonesia’s December 1975 invasion of East Timor. The 35-year-old reports are understood to show the Australian government’s knowledge of Indonesia’s preparations to invade the then Portuguese colony and cross-border incursions, including the raid that resulted in the deaths of the five Australia-based journalists at Balibo in October 1975. ”Yes, it may cause some political discomfort for former prime ministers Whitlam and Fraser, but let’s get the story told and have an open and honest debate about events from 35 years ago,” he told Federal Parliament last week.

In mid-2007, Australian Defence Force Academy senior lecturer Clinton Fernandes applied under the Archives Act for access to the still-classified reports prepared by the Joint Intelligence Organisation, the forerunner to today’s Defence Intelligence Organisation. Dr Fernandes served as historical adviser to producer Robert Connolly’s movie Balibo, which deals with the murder of the five newsmen by Indonesian troops. After more than two years’ delay, the Defence Department released a number of reports, some formerly classified Top Secret For Australian Eyes Only. However, almost all of the contents have been blacked out on the publicly released copies on the grounds the information ”continues to be sensitive”.

A former military intelligence officer, Dr Fernandes said he remained ”surprised” by the decision to withhold the information given ”the lengthy passage of time, the independence of East Timor [and] democratic political change in Indonesia”. ”There is a deep-seated culture of secrecy within Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade in which ‘national security’ serves as an easy alibi to conceal all manner of embarrassing truths,” Dr Fernandes said. The department’s decision to withhold the East Timor reports from public access is now subject to review by the Federal Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Mr Oakeshott said responsibility ultimately rested with Senator Faulkner, who had previously been an advocate of greater transparency in the defence portfolio.

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