A conspiracy of silence

The Australian (Australia)

November 8, 2007

A conspiracy of silence

By Dan Box

AUSTRALIA’S former chief intelligence official has confirmed members of the Whitlam government deliberately withheld news of the deaths of the Balibo Five from their families for fear of revealing the information came from intercepted Indonesian military communications.

Gordon Jockel, director of the Joint Intelligence Organisation at the time of the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor, yesterday said he broke the news of the deaths to the then defence minister, Don Morrison, and the two men agreed not to release it.

The Australian revealed yesterday that the then foreign minister, Don Willesee, attempted to break this embargo and privately pass on word of the deaths, most likely through an unidentified military officer who spoke to two of the men’s employers at the Nine Network.

This account of a conspiracy of silence at the highest levels of government is in contrast to that given on oath by Gough Whitlam at a coronial inquest, due to report next week, in which the former prime minister stated that he had not been told about the deaths for five days.

Mr Jockel said: ”I learned about the deaths about 11.30 in the morning (of October 17, one day after the invasion).

”I went over to Parliament House and told Morrison straight away. I didn’t have to argue with him, we agreed we simply couldn’t release it,” he said.

”That was the general view at the time, that officially it would not be in our security interests. Simple as that.”

Mr Jockel yesterday said that he did not believe that Mr Whitlam’s account to the inquest was inaccurate. ”Gough is not a man to lie in court. Bizarre as it seems, I would accept the fact that Whitlam was not informed,” he said.

The inquest by the NSW Coroner into the death of cameraman Brian Peters, who was working in the Timorese village of Balibo with Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart and Malcolm Rennie, heard from witnesses who said the men were deliberately shot by Indonesian soldiers.

The inquest also heard a navy linguist, Robin Dix, who translated an intercepted Indonesian military radio communication on the day of the invasion that was subsequently sent to the office of the prime minister and other government officials.

”Five Australian journalists have been killed and all their corpses have been incinerated or burnt to a crisp,” the message read, Mr Dix told the inquest.

”I will never forget it. I remember it word for word.”

It was this secret — that Australia routinely intercepted Indonesian military communications — that the government wanted to protect, Mr Jockel said.

As a result, the deaths were not confirmed for 10 days and even then official reports said the men had been caught in crossfire.

Greg Shackleton’s widow, Shirley, yesterday said she received a telegram from Willesee, who died in September 2003, informing her of her husband’s death, days before the news was made public.

”He said he was very sorry, he mentioned that they were dead, which no one else had said. The only information I received over those terrible 10 days was from him,” Ms Shackleton said.

”I do feel sorry for Senator Willesee. All his life, to have that worry and to have that guilt. I’m angry to think that he suffered and that others in the government put that on him because he did everything he could.”

In his testimony to the inquest, Mr Whitlam said he had not been told about the deaths until October 21 because he had been in Sydney and, as a result, could not be reached on a secure line.

Mr Morrison — who could not be contacted yesterday — told the inquest he chose not to pass the information on to the prime minister, who was grappling with a domestic political crisis at the time. ”I think the prime minister had enough problems on his hands. It was on pain of death to go anywhere near his office at that stage,” he said.

A spokesman for Mr Whitlam said he would respond after the coronial report next Friday.

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