Australia accused of 'excessive and unnecessary' secrecy
Australia's suppression of information seen as pivotal to a free and open media is at the center of accusations that the country has become one of the world's most secretive democracies.
Last week, a former Australian spy was convicted over his unconfirmed role as a whistleblower who revealed an espionage operation against the government of East Timor.
It's the latest high-profile case in a national system in which secrecy laws, some dating back to the colonial era, are routinely used to suppress information. Police have also threatened to charge journalists who exposed war crime allegations against Australian special forces in Afghanistan, or bureaucrats' plan to allow an intelligence agency to spy on Australian citizens.
Australians don't even know the name of the former spy convicted Friday. The Canberra court registry listed him as "Witness K." His lawyer referred to him more respectfully as "Mr. K" in court.
K spent the two-day hearing in a box constructed from black screens to hide his identity. The public and media were sent out of the courtroom when classified evidence was discussed, which was about half the time.
The only sign that anyone was actually inside the box was when a voice said "guilty" after K was asked how he pleads.
The Australian government has refused to comment on allegations that K led an Australian Secret Intelligence Service operation that bugged government offices in the East Timorese capital in 2004, during negotiations on the sharing of oil and gas revenue from the seabed that separates the two countries.
The government cancelled K's passport before he was to testify at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2014 in support of the East Timorese, who argued the treaty was invalid because Australia failed to negotiate in good faith by engaging in espionage.
There was no evidence heard in open court of a bugging operation, which media reported was conducted under the guise of a foreign aid program.
K was given a three-month suspended sentence. If he'd been sent to prison, there were court orders designed to conceal his former espionage career by restricting what he could tell friends and associates to explain his predicament.
He had faced up to two years in prison. Since his offense, Australia has continued to tighten controls on secrecy, increasing the maximum sentence to 10 years.
As lacking in transparency as K's prosecution was, it was a vast improvement on Australia's treatment of another rogue intelligence officer known as Witness J. J has been described by the media as possibly the only person in Australian history to be tried, sentenced and imprisoned in secret. But no one seems to know for sure.
As with K, it is illegal to reveal J's identity.
J pleaded guilty in a closed courtroom in the same Canberra court complex in 2018 to charges related to mishandling classified information and potentially revealing the identities of Australian agents. He spent 15 months in prison.
The secret court hearing and imprisonment only became public in late 2019 because J took court action against the Australian Capital Territory government, claiming his human rights were violated by police who raided his prison cell in search of a memoir he was writing.
Outraged lawyers then called for the first major review of the nation's secrecy laws since 2010. Whistleblowers as well as journalists currently are under threat from more than 70 counterterrorism and security laws passed by Parliament since the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.
Andrew Wilkie, a former government intelligence analyst whistleblower who's now an independent federal lawmaker, is a vocal critic of national security being used as an excuse to pander to paranoia and shield embarrassment.
Wilkie opposed the prosecution of K and his former lawyer Bernard Collaery. Collaery is fighting a charge that he conspired with K to reveal secrets to East Timor, and wants his trial to be open.
"I am in no doubt that one of the reasons for the secrecy around the K and Collaery matter is the enormous political embarrassment that we were spying on one of the poorest countries in the world to get an upper hand in a business negotiation," Wilkie said.
Wilkie quit his intelligence job in the Office of National Assessments days before Australian troops joined U.S. and British forces in the 2003 Iraq invasion. He publicly argued that Iraq didn't pose sufficient threat to warrant invasion and that there was no evidence linking Iraq's government to al-Qaida.
"I basically accused the government of lying," Wilkie said.
Although the government attempted to discredit him, Wilkie said he was never threatened with prosecution for revealing classified information.
For many, Australian authorities took a step too far in June 2019 in their bid to chase down whistleblowers, intimidate journalists and protect government secrets.
Police raided the home of News Corp. journalist Annika Smethurst, and the next day the headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Both media outlets had used leaked government documents as the basis of public interest journalism.
The search warrants were issued under Section 70 of the Crimes Act 1914, which prohibited a government employee from sharing information without a supervisor's permission.
(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)
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- Bernard Collaery
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- East Timor
- Australian Secret Intelligence Service
- East Timorese
- Annika Smethurst
- News Corp.