Drawing the Line Image Credit: Martine Perret / UN Photo

Drawing the Line

Witness K and the ethics of spying


In the first week of January 2019, a private jet landed at Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks emerged into the monsoonal heat and was greeted by staff from the office of Xanana Gusmão, Timor-Leste’s chief maritime boundary negotiator. They drove Bracks to the waterfront café at the Novo Turismo Resort and Spa, where Gusmão was waiting. The subject of the meeting was Bernard Collaery, Gusmão’s former lawyer, who was pleading not guilty to breaches of Australia’s intelligence act.

Collaery’s charges related to an Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) operation in Dili in 2004, in which Canberra is believed to have recorded Timor-Leste officials’ private discussions about maritime boundary negotiations with Australia. In 2013, the Australian government revealed the allegations of spying. Five years later, in June 2018, Attorney-General Christian Porter consented to charges being laid against Collaery and a retired ASIS agent known only as Witness K for “conspiring to reveal classified information”.

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