Australia and East Timor

And now for something completely different: a spy story that isn’t about the US National Security Agency’s surveillance of everything

And now for something completely different: a spy story that isn’t about the US National Security Agency’s surveillance of everything and everybody. This one could come straight out of a 1950s spy thriller: a microphone buried in a wall, a listening post manned by people with headphones, and

True, Australia is a member of the “Five Eyes” (the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand), which share most of the information that they acquire through hi-tech mass surveillance. But this kind of spying was too shameful to share even with the other Four Eyes of the “Anglosphere”.

It was an Australian-only operation, mounted in 2004 to gather information about the negotiating position of a very poor neighbouring country, East Timor, so that Australia could rip its neighbour off in a treaty that divided a rich gas-field on the seabed between them.

The treaty in question, “Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea”, always seemed a bit peculiar. The CMATS treaty gave Australia a half share in the massive Greater Sunrise field, which is said to be worth $40 billion. But that field lies just 100 kilometres south of East Timor, and 400 kilometres from Australia.

The East Timor government depends on gas revenues for 95 percent of its income, so it was very vulnerable in those negotiations. The Australian negotiators could exploit that vulnerability because they knew exactly how desperate their Timorese opposite numbers were: the Australian Secret Intelligence Service had bugged the government’s offices.

Four ASIS operatives did the job, pretending to be part of a team of Australian aid workers that was renovating East Timor’s government offices. The man who gave the order was Alex Downer, Australia’s foreign minister at the time – who now runs a public relations firm that represents Woodside Petroleum, a major Australian company that was the main beneficiary of the treaty. Funny how things work out.

The operation would never have come to light if the former director of technical operations at ASIS had not had an attack of conscience on learning of Downer’s link to Woodside. He told East Timor about it, and the Timorese government then brought an action before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague demanding that the CMATS treaty be cancelled.

The Australian government’s response was to cancel the whistle-blower’s passport last week so that he could not travel to The Hague to testify, and to raid the Sydney offices of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer who is representing East Timor before the Court. It’s more of the same sort of behaviour:  the Australian government has decided to brazen it out.

But the case may still be settled out of court, because East Timor is still desperate. Woodside has not yet started developing the Greater Sunrise field, and it will never do so if there isn’t a deal. Offer East Timor another 10 percent and a promise to go ahead, and it will probably drop the case. The poor cannot afford justice.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.