Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday defended a raid by Australian intelligence agents on the offices of a lawyer representing East Timor in a spying case, but Timor’s president called it “unconscionable”.
Abbott’s government is under fire after the offices of lawyer Bernard Collaery were raided by the domestic spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), on Tuesday and a range of material seized on a secret warrant.
Also searched were the premises of a former intelligence agent turned whistleblower in the case against Canberra.
Collaery is representing East Timor’s government in an arbitration hearing at The Hague which accuses Australia of espionage over a controversial Timor Sea gas treaty. He has described the raids as “intimidatory” tactics before a hearing in the case Thursday.
The Labor-Greens opposition called for an explanation from Attorney-General George Brandis, with Labor Senator Penny Wong saying the action brought into question the “integrity of the rule of law”.
But Abbott defended the move as in Australia’s national interest.
“We don’t interfere in cases but we always act to ensure that our national security is being properly upheld – that’s what we’re doing,” the prime minister said.
“One of the important things that government does is protect national security.”
He later assured lawmakers that “no one’s phone can be tapped, no one’s conversations can be listened into without a specific warrant”.
“Our intelligence services both here and abroad operate under the very strictest of safeguards,” Abbott said.
Timor President Xanana Gusmao said the raids were “counterproductive and unco-operative” and demanded Abbott fully explain why they were carried out.
“Raiding the premises of a legal representative of Timor-Leste (East Timor) and taking such aggressive action against a key witness is unconscionable and unacceptable conduct,” he said in a statement.
“It is behaviour that is not worthy of a close friend and neighbour or of a great nation like Australia.”
In a statement to parliament, Brandis confirmed that premises belonging to Collaery and those of an unnamed former officer of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), the country’s foreign intelligence agency, were raided on Tuesday and “documents and electronic data” seized.
“The search warrants were issued on the advice and at the request of ASIO to protect Australia’s national security,” Brandis told the Senate.
The retired ASIS officer-turned-whistleblower is Collaery’s key witness, and will allege that the spy agency used an Australian aid project to renovate East Timor’s cabinet offices as a front to install listening devices in the walls during crucial gas treaty talks in 2004.
Brandis did not comment on or confirm Collaery’s claim that the agent was detained and questioned at length before his passport was cancelled to prevent him from travelling to The Hague to testify – a move described by the lawyer as a “contemptuous” attempt to silence the witness.
The attorney-general noted that it was an offence for a current or former ASIS agent to disclose any information gleaned during or as a result of their service.
Brandis rejected suggestions by Collaery that the raids were designed to interfere in The Hague case, saying he had instructed ASIO that seized material “is not under any circumstances to be communicated to those conducting the proceedings on behalf of Australia”.
East Timor accuses Australia of spying to gain a commercial advantage during negotiations on a deal called Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea, or CMATS. It argues in The Hague that the 50-50 profit-sharing deal of A$40 billion (US$36 billion) in proceeds from the vast gasfields between their two nations should be torn up.
“If this had happened in Wall Street ... people would go to jail. This is inside trading to get extra revenue. It had nothing to do with protecting our country,” said Collaery.