Attorneys trying to get a ban lifted on a book disclosing secret details of sensitive Vietnam-era relations between Australia and the United States told the High Court today that hundreds of Australians already have copies, along with the U.S. Embassy.
Evidence also was tendered in the court, the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, that at least one radio station in Melbourne is reading large sections of the book, "Documents on Australian Defense and Foreign Policy 1968-75," and that more than 600 copies have been sold in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney bookshops.
The material the government wants supressed refers mainly to diplomatic communications between Australia on one hand and the United States and Indonesia on the other, particularly Australian criticism of Indonesia's takeover of East Timor in 1976, according to arguments in court.
Excerpts printed in two newspapers before publication was temporarily prohibited were mainly cables showing that Australia was not succeeding in the early 1970's in getting greater control over American military and intelligence installations on Australian soil. They also showed that successive Australian governments accepted the situation whenever the State Department assured them of U.S. military protection by under the 29-year-old Anzus Treaty of mutual defense among the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
The Australian government last weekend got a High Court injunction against the two newspapers that had started to publish extracts. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and against the book's distributor Angus and Robertson Ltd. The injunction expired yesterday, when the High Court began hearing arguments on whether the injunction should be made permanent or publication be permitted. But the two newspapers and the book's authors agreed not to publish further extracts or to sell the book until the court case is finished.
The lawyer for The Age, Jeffrey Sher, told the court that not only had hundreds of copies of the book been sold and excerpts read on radio stations, but that both the U.S. Embassy and the Indonesian Embassy had obtained copies of it.
"More importantly," Sher said, "the government is trying to impair one of the basic freedoms -- the freedom of speech.The freedom of the press to publish what it thinks is in the public interest would be imparied in a serious way."
Sher said the government's main concern seemed to be the effect the book would have on Indonesia.
"What we have are documents which show that Australian public servants were advising the foreign ministers that the best way to deal with Indonesia was that the truth should be the last thing to be used," he said. "We say that the government's desire to have that material [criticism of Indonesia during its military takeover of East Timor] kept secret will do this nation a far greater disservice than the exposure of that criticism."
The lawyer for the government, L. J. Priestly, said his case rests on three principles: the "doctrine of confidentiality" between government ministers and officials advising them, the government's claim to copyright of its documents and the possibility that publication of the documents would violate the Crimes Act.
Australia's Crime Act makes it a serious felony for public servants to reveal details of their work or for citizens to acquire classified documents illegally.
The head of the Defense Department, William Pritchett, said in court that 14 documents in the book are classified and that he believes they were stolen. The head of the Foreign Affairs Department, Peter Henderson, said the material about Indonesia was of "a particularly delicate kind."
"The overriding sensitivity of this chapter is the mentioning by name of, and at times critical references to, leading Indonesian political figures who are still very much on the scene, from the president down," he added. "Publication of this material could have an immediate and continuing damaging effect on Australia's relations with Indonesia."
The judge hearing the case said he will hear more technical evidence Thursday and then reserve judgment for no longer than 14 days.