Keeping secret (some) Australian goverment archives

16 April 2014

The National Archives of Australia’s holdings of government records about East Timor are a rich evidential and research resource, but parts of the record remain closed to public scrutiny.  We explore this continuing secrecy through summarising a recent effort by researcher and author Clinton Fernandes to access some restricted 1981-1982 documents.


On 2 April 2014, the President of Australia’s Administrative Appeal Tribunal (AAT) affirmed an earlier National Archives of Australia (NAA) decision to deny Clinton Fernandes access to parts of two Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT) folders about East Timor (pictured above).

In 2012 NAA had examined and released the folders to Fernandes (and to general public access), but denied access to 140 of a total of some 600 pages. These pages were excluded on the grounds that, if public, they could cause damage to Australia’s security, defence or international relations or that they were provided in confidence by another government (see details in Section 33 (1)(a) & (b) of the Archives Act 1983 .

Fernandes sought from NAA a review of that 2012 decision but with little result – so he followed standard procedure by then appealing to the AAT for an independent judgement on access to the excluded pages.

Public and closed hearings on January 30 and February 3 this year finally resulted in the AAT’s written decision of April 2. The decision (see full text) kept all ‘exempt’ material secret except for one line on one page and one paragraph on another page.

The folders
The two folders are part of sequence of folders titled ‘Portuguese Timor – Political – General’. This folder sequence, which dates back to 1946, was created and maintained by DFAT in Canberra.

The two folders in question, ‘parts’ 20 and 21, cover the dates 05 August 1981 to 11 January 1982. Clinton Fernandes sought access to these folders because they cover the period of a late-1981 Indonesian military operation known as Operasi Keamanan.* 

Many of the public documents in these two folders do shed some light on what Australian officials did learn about the 1981 military operation. The material judged to be not secret can be viewed online through NAA – see Part 20 & Part 21.

We can only guess how much more information is in the still-secret pages of the folders – at least some of which came from the USA government or Australia’s intelligence coordinating body, the Office of National Assessments (ONA).

Government barrier to fair process
Fernandes’ appeal to the AAT was made more difficult by an action of the Australian government. In January, Attorney-General George Brandis issued a so-called ‘public interest certificate’ which required secrecy for official written evidence and verbal testimony to the AAT. The AAT President hearing the case acknowledged the disadvantage to Fernandes – the certificate meant his representative could neither see nor cross-examine the evidence put to the Tribunal.

A further consequence of the certificate was that the reasoning behind the Tribunal’s final decisions were also to be kept secret – leaving Fernandes with little grounds to challenge the decisions.

The decision – key points
Much of the text of the formal AAT decision is details on the procedures and legal context of the decision-making process. The substantial elements of the decision were:

1. With the exception of ten pages (‘folios’), the AAT affirmed the original NAA decision to deny access to the large number of ‘exempt’ pages. (Decision paragraph 62)

2. After further evidence from the Inspector-General of Intelligence & Security (IGIS) on these ten pages, the AAT decided that only parts of two of the pages could be released (paras. 62-64).**

Why the continued secrecy?
The AAT decision text implies that documents cannot be exempted from access on the grounds of “mere embarrassment” or exposure of Australia or Indonesia to public discussion and criticism (see para 34).

We know some documents from the USA remain secret because the US has asked Australia to keep them so. That is the law (Archives Act 33(1)(b) – so that decision is not surprising. But we do not know why the US wants the material kept secret.

All but a fragment of the documents remain secret because the Tribunal was persuaded by government claims their release will damage some or all of Australia’s defence, security or international relations. But the ways in which specific documents might cause such damage is not revealed.

Only minor clues to Australian government thinking on this can be found in the decision text.

Public evidence from ONA claimed disclosure of its material would be seen by other (hostile ?) parties or could damage relationships with ‘international partner agencies’ which, in turn could damage the broader security/defence relationships (paras 55-56). This is the standard general case made against release of any intelligence agency material and is not a revelation.

The same ONA official also referred to current tensions between Australia and Indonesia as a factor – implying that anything which might exacerbate the tensions was against Australia’s interests (para 57). Again, these are standard arguments which have been asserted by successive Australian administrations for decades.

We can only speculate on the specific reasons for the continued need to keep secret 30-year-old archives about Timor. Readers are invited to add their own thoughts by way of ‘Comments’.

The most likely reasons are to do with developing and maintaining Australia-US-Indonesia security and intelligence relationships – but beyond that, who knows? Another possibility is that some of the exempt information reveals high quality information about Indonesian military activities in 1981 and/or points the finger at the role of particular Indonesian military individuals still in service or public life.

Whatever the reasons, the Australian government and its agencies are strongly protecting some information from public access. So concerned with continuing the secrecy, the Australian government has flagged it is considering an appeal to the Federal Court against the AAT decision to release those tiny fragments on two pages. (See: Paragraph 6 part 4 of this subsequent April 8 decision of the AAT).

One partial solution to this overall problem may lie with Indonesian and US citizens pressing their own governments to release their still-secret official records on East Timor.

 - – - – - – - – - – -

* The operation was notable for its use of a ‘fence of legs’ (pagar betis) tactic in which large numbers of Timorese civilians were conscripted to assist Indonesia forces to sweep through the territory to capture the Fretilin-led resistance. There were fears at the time that this forced conscription could lead to serious food shortages in rural Timor. This operation also resulted in thousands of East Timorese being incarcerated on Atauro Island.

** Parts to be released: The first line of the hand-written text on Part 21, folio 130 and the first paragraph of Part 21, folio 133.


March 24: International Day for the Right to the Truth

24 March 2014

CHART co-founder and board member, Pat Walsh, draws attention to this relatively new official United Nations marker – the International Day for the Right to the Truth.


Given the official thrashing meted out to whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, many may be surprised to know that the international community believes in a right to the truth (albeit related to human rights violations) and wants the right promoted and upheld!

As enunciated by the UN, the right applies specifically to victims of human rights violations and their tormentors. It entitles victims or their families and representatives to seek, receive and impart information on their case. Equally, it obliges governments and their agencies – prisons, police, military, hospitals and so on – to preserve and provide access to the relevant files in their possession. The initiative has particular relevance to East Timorese and Indonesian victims and their respective governments.

The UN has dedicated March 24 each year to draw the attention of both victims and governments to the right and its practical implications for both. March 24 is the day Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980 for speaking the truth.

CHART welcomes the UN’s initiative. It underlines the importance of archives. We also hope that March 24 will spur Timor-Leste to consider the implementation of the 17 recommendations* in the CAVR Chega! report that relate to human rights archives – something CHART is able and willing to help with.


* Chega! recommendations on archives: In summary, CAVR called on corporations and governments to contribute funding and documentation to assist Timor-Leste to re-build its patrimony. Governments such as Portugal and Indonesia and the Vatican, UN, Indonesian Human Rights Commission and Courts are asked to preserve and make accessible their records on Timor-Leste. More specifically, Indonesia is asked to make available its records on the war in Timor-Leste and the Comarca Balide. Timor-Leste is asked to enact general archival legislation and to convert the Comarca into a human rights and archival centre.

More information:
Official United Nations webpage

The Right to the Truth. Pat Walsh, 15 March 2011

Victims’ Right to the Truth. Pat Walsh, 24 March 2013

Chega! report recommendations

Timorese Resistance Archive: New online version

1 October 2013

The rich document collection of Timor-Leste’s Resistance Archive and Museum has been available for several years. We explore a new and improved online access facility for the digitised parts of the collection.

Portugal’s Mario Soares Foundation (FMS) has been a principal contributor to the program to secure the Timor-based archives of the East Timorese political and armed resistance. In particular, the FMS has been responsible for professionally conserving and digitising a huge volume of resistance and related documents.

Since 2005, FMS has delivered the digital files through the website of the Arkivu & Muzeu Rezisténsia Timorense (AMRT) in Dili. CHART reviewed the second of these delivery systems in 2010 (see here). The third version of the digital library, available through a distinct website developed by FMS, offers some definite improvements over the earlier versions.


Document images from the new Casa Comum digital archive

The new website, Casa Comum, (literally, common home or house) provides access to archival records from a range of institutions across the Portuguese speaking world. The AMRT archive is just one of over seventy archival collections now available.

Improved search options

Digital folders for browsing

Digital folders for browsing

Access to the Timor collection is still possible by browsing digital folders arranged by year (see graphic at right; numbers indicate how many documents in each ‘folder’).  The major improvement comes with the introduction of an advanced search screen (pesquisa avançada).

The advanced search screen helps find documents by title, year, content summary (Assunto), registration number (Pasta), notes (Observações) and original document source/owner (Fundo).

The latter now makes it possible to see something of the context of individual documents. We can see, for example, which items were originally in the hands of Jose Ramos-Horta or view the huge collection of Konis Santana.

The advanced screen also allows restricting a search to a particular range of dates and introduces so-called ‘boolean operators’ (and, or, not) to further control the search results.

The new online facility is a welcome access enhancement to the AMRT’s important collection. Along with the relatively new CIDAC online archive, researchers have easy access to a very large and growing collection of Timor-related materials.

While CHART can envisage even more enhancements to each of these online resources, we are in awe of the work done to create them. We strongly encourage anyone with Timor archival, research and history interests to use these resources.

CHART is grateful to Luis Pinto for drawing our attention to the new facility and to FMS’s Alfredo Caldeira for his demonstration of the database in Lisbon in August.  More on the latter in a forthcoming Timor Archives article.

Tax deductible donations to CHART

25 September 2013

Australians supporting our Timor archives work can now claim a tax deduction for gifts or donations to CHART.

CHART Inc. has been endorsed by the Australian Taxation Office as a deductible gift recipient, following our successful application to join the official Register of Cultural Organisations (ROCO).

CHART’s Chairman, Bill Armstrong AO, said he was delighted with the endorsement and hoped that donations from philanthropic bodies and supportive individuals would follow.

“CHART currently operates on a shoestring budget, using voluntary labour,” said Mr Armstrong. “I hope this endorsement will ultimately allow us to accelerate our planned digitisation of important Timor archives, and continue our program of assisting people and institutions in Australia who hold Timor materials.”

How to donate

Donations should be made payable to “CHART Fund”.

Cheques should be sent to CHART Inc, Columban Mission Centre, 69 Woodland Street, Essendon VIC 3040.

Direct electronic funds transfer (EFT) can be made to:
Account Name: CHART Fund
BSB: 033 048
Account Number: 426060

If using EFT, please email the details to chart[at]

Donors requiring tax deductibilty must supply CHART with their name and postal address to receive a formal receipt.

All donations will be publicly acknowledged on the CHART website unless a donor requests anonymity.

Herb Feith Foundation digitisation grant

25 September 2013

CHART is delighted to announce the receipt of a significant grant to digitise an important Timor archival collection.

The Herb Feith Foundation (HFF) grant of $24,400 will be used to begin an extensive digitisation of the Human Rights Office collection of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA, now ACFID). The collection, recording the work of Pat Walsh and associates from 1979-2000, is among the highest-ranking Timor archival collections still in private hands anywhere.

The most recent CHART guide to the collection contents can be found here.

Digitisation for Timor
The ultimate focus of the project is to make the digital copies available for East Timorese access through institutions in Timor Leste. The bulk of the grant will be used to train and pay assistants to conduct the scanning work. CHART hopes to engage, on a part-time basis, East Timorese students in Melbourne to do this work.

Smaller elements of the grant include equipment and software purchases as well as translation of key documents into Tetun and development of a Tetun-language version of the CHART website.

Herb Feith (second from right) with Jose Ramos-Horta and Australian Timor solidarity activists, c.1984. [Photo: Ian Bell]

Herb Feith (second from right) with Jose Ramos-Horta and Australian Timor solidarity activists, c.1984. [Photo: Ian Bell]

Herb Feith Foundation
Based at Monash University, the HFF was established in honour of the late Herb Feith (1930-2001). Herb was an internationally-recognised expert on Indonesia and one of very few Australian academics to work for justice for East Timor under Indonesian military occupation. More information on Herb’s life and work can be found here.

The Foundation funds a range of activities. A notable project with Timor parallels is the translation into English of Indonesian-language accounts of mass violence in Indonesia associated with General Suharto’s rise to power in 1965-66.

Andrew McNaughtan video archive: CHART work

25 July 2013

CHART’s Cecily Gilbert and John Waddingham recently spent two weeks in residence at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra examining the video collection of prominent 1990s Timor activist Dr Andrew McNaughtan (1954-2003).

Andrew McNaughtan with Jude Conway and FALINTIL commander, Taur Matan Ruak

East Timor 1999: Andrew McNaughtan with Jude Conway, FALINTIL commander Taur Matan Ruak, and camera. Credit: Jude Conway

The Andrew McNaughtan audiovisual collection holds some important historical footage from occupied East Timor in the 1990s. The collection was deposited at Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in 2006, three years after Andrew’s sudden and premature death in December 2003.

Andrew McNaughtan visited Timor several times from 1994, always carrying a video camera. He travelled around the territory, recording countryside and village scenes and interviewing anyone who was prepared to speak to camera about life and conditions under Indonesian military occupation.

The collection is an important part of the surviving archival record of this significant Australian activist and the period he observed in East Timor.

Collection content
Andrew McNaughtan’s video for the 1994-1998 period contains rare material, some of which is probably unique. Raw footage of particular note for this period includes:

  • Extensive coverage of the 1998 university ‘Student Dialogues’ process
  • Smuggled Indonesian recordings of post-demonstration detentions and interrogations
  • Interviews with Church personnel, including priests, nuns and Monsignor Belo
  • Interviews with ordinary Timorese on military occupation, human rights violations, food production and shortages
  • Some marvellous scenes of countryside, jubilant pre-independence crowds, religious ceremonies and devotions

McNaughtan’s extensive record of the historic ‘Student Dialogues’ throughout East Timor in the second half of 1998 is especially interesting. He travelled with the student convoys from Dili to various centres across the territory, recording the public rallies and the obstructions they experienced from civilian and military officials.

Teamwork: NFSA’s Tim Cowie (left) and Tenille Hands (third from left) with John Waddingham and Cecily Gilbert.

CHART work
CHART’s two weeks at NFSA was devoted to viewing the McNaughtan material and recording data about the collection content for NFSA’s online catalogue.

The project provided a number of challenges – not least of which was trying to determine the date and location of some 100 different recordings. CHART’s final data set on the collection is far from perfect. Much work remains to be done to more accurately identify people, places, events and spoken content.

Our data on the collection will be available through this website when it becomes available on the NFSA catalogue in coming weeks.

Access to collection
The collection will be available for viewing at NFSA after it is catalogued.

CHART also nominated some sixty tapes for special digitisation by NFSA which will enable that footage to be viewed through NFSA offices or agencies in most Australian capitals.

NFSA has a longer term plan to make footage like this accessible online through its own website. NFSA also has adopted in recent years an in-principle commitment to ensuring key Timor archival materials are eventually accessible to East Timorese through Timor-Leste’s own archival institutions.

Further information on Andrew McNaughtan:
1. Document archives: CHART work and list.
2. Clinton Fernandes’ photographic testimonial.
3. Collected reflections by friends and colleagues.

Australian diplomats: behind the scenes

18 July 2013

The National Archives of Australia (NAA) holds voluminous and content-rich records of the inner workings of successive national governments and their underlying bureaucracies. While there remain significant restrictions on access to NAA’s Timor-related holdings, there is still much detail to be learned from the open records.

CHART’s John Waddingham and Cecily Gilbert recently spent a day at NAA’s main reading room in Canberra. We present here a few snapshots of the day-to-day Timor work by officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) in the late 1970s.

A. Massive population displacement – 1978
The 1978/1979 famine in East Timor was a direct result of major Indonesian military campaigns from late 1977 – especially as it resulted in huge numbers of East Timorese moving into camps under Indonesian control but without adequate humanitarian aid.

Click to see document

In early 1979 officers of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta received an Indonesian Red Cross document purporting to detail some 300,000 East Timorese ‘returning’ from the bush during 1978. This data was not made public at the time. It may now provide useful research data to help understand the scale of tragedy which unfolded.



‘Lets see first what the Canadians give us.’

B. Sharing information with allies
Ambassadors from several countries who visited East Timor in September 1978 saw the first signs of an emerging famine in the territory (see our earlier article). The archival record of what governments like Australia did and did not do to push for the much-needed entry of international emergency humanitarian aid is a key issue that CHART will explore further.

For now, however, a minor sideshow: Behind the scenes DFAT officers decide which of Australian ambassador Tom Critchley’s reports on his Timor visit are to be shared with Canada and New Zealand. The record shows the department ensuring it gets reciprocal information benefits from the sharing. Click image above to view.



C. Jim Dunn and the Fraser Committee
NAA holds a packed lever-arch Jakarta Embassy file entitled “Dunn allegations”. While CHART had insufficient time to explore its full contents, the file clearly shows Jim Dunn’s contribution to the public debate was of great concern to the DFAT officers trying to manage the Timor issue.

Dunn’s March 1977 appearance before the US Congressional Sub-committee on International Organisations (known as the ‘Fraser Committee’ after its chairman, Donald Fraser) to report on human rights violations in occupied East Timor was a cause for much cable traffic between Canberra and Jakarta. The samples we show here are Ambassador Richard Woolcott’s reportage on conversations with the US Ambassador to Jakarta and a senior Indonesian Foreign Affairs official.


D. 1977 US Congressional visit – a “snow job”
Indonesian government alarm at Jim Dunn’s testimony before the Fraser Committee in March 1977 quickly led to a short, arranged visit to Timor by US representatives William Goodling and Helen Meyner. Media coverage of the April 1977 visit provided the headlines satisfactory to the Indonesian side (see example here); Meyner’s formal report and personal testimony to the same Congressional committee in July was somewhat more guarded.

The views and observations of the US embassy officers in Jakarta who accompanied Meyner and Goodling to Timor were communicated to the Australian embassy. The record of that conversation reports the US officers describing the visit as a “snow job”. The officers said they were telling more to the Australian embassy officers than they had communicated to Washington; they include reported claims against Jim Dunn and the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) – the latter accused of supplying military aid to Fretilin. Click image to read the conversation record.

And a curious sideshow to the July meeting of the Fraser Committee: It seems that off-the-record back room work was done by Australia’s Washington Embassy to delay the meeting. The reason was to ensure the meeting did not coincide with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s Washington visit in mid-1977. But why Ambassador Flood thought it necessary to avoid standard diplomatic cables to report this seems puzzling.


E. Keeping Fretilin / Ramos-Horta out of Australia
The Fraser Government decided in 1976 to no longer allow members of Fretilin’s external delegation to visit Australia. The ban was overturned by the Hawke Labor Government in 1983. Several attempts were made by Jose Ramos-Horta to enter Australia in those intervening years – without success.

We provide here a small window into DFAT consideration of such applications and the form of its recommendation to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Andrew Peacock (who initials his agreement to deny Horta entry).

Christopher Dunn: Please, Mr Peacock....

Christopher Dunn: Please, Mr Peacock….

The file also contains a sweeter note: the original hand-written letter to Andrew Peacock by young Christopher Dunn (son of Jim) ‘asking very nicely’ for ‘my friend Mr Horta’ to be allowed to make a ‘little visit’.


National Archives of Australia References:

[A] NAA: A1838, 3038/10/11/2 PART 6. Portuguese Timor – Visits of Australians to Portuguese Timor

[B] NAA: A1838, 3038/10/11/2 PART 5. Portuguese Timor – Visits of Australians to Portuguese Timor

[C] NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/10 PART 1.  Jakarta – Timor – Dunn allegations – Australian reactions – Australian parliamentary activity

[D] NAA: A10463, 801/13/11/10 PART 2. Jakarta – Third country relations – East Timor – Dunn allegations

[E] NAA: A1838, 3038/10/3 PART 5. East Timor Fretelin [Fretilin] and pro Fretelin [Fretilin] activities in Australia


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