SYDNEY: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Wednesday defended intelligence raids on the offices of a lawyer representing East Timor in a spying case against Canberra, saying they were necessary for national security.
Abbott’s government is under fire after lawyer Bernard Collaery’s offices were raided by the domestic spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), on Tuesday and a range of material seized on a secret warrant.
Collaery is representing East Timor’s government in an arbitration at The Hague accusing Australia of espionage over a controversial Timor Sea gas treaty, and has described the raids as “intimidatory” tactics ahead of a hearing in the case on Thursday.
The Labor-Greens opposition called for an explanation from lawyer Gen. George Brandis, with Labor Sen. Penny Wong saying the raids 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.
In a statement to parliament, Brandis confirmed that premises belonging to Collaery and 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 renovating 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 traveling to The Hague to testify—a move described by the lawyer as a “crass” and “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.”