The “Economy” of Espionage: Witness K, East Timor and Reframing Whistleblowers

by Dr. Justin T. McPhee / October 30th, 2018

Intelligence and the law ought to work together. Often they do synchronise. Sometimes they clash.   Indeed, it was with some levity that Justice Mason commented on this vexed relationship when ruling on the Australian Secret Intelligence Service’s (ASIS) botched training session at the Sheraton Hotel, Melbourne, in November 1983.

Here’s Mason J: “There is an air of unreality about this stated case. It has the appearance of a Law School moot based on an episode taken from the adventures of Maxwell Smart”. In that case, the High Court decided the identities of the ASIS operatives could be disclosed to the police, but, perhaps, ought not be. While their identities remained concealed, their antics were revealed: thus Mason’s comments.

It’s now three decades later. ASIS operatives are again in the public spotlight and before the courts. Although this time the hijinks has been revealed by one of their own. Moreover, the consequences of this case are more solemn than the Sheraton incident. It is a story about blowing-the-whistle on the entanglement of intelligence, politics and commercial interests. It is also a story about exposing where all three unite, and what happens when they do.

To set the scene some context is in order. It’s 2004. The government of John Howard authorises ASIS to clandestinely bug the offices of the East Timorese Prime Minister and his cabinet in Dili. By doing so Australian officials…

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