Prime Minister Robert Hawke, citing a threat to Australia's international relations and domestic security, acted to prevent further disclosures of secret documents today after a weekly newspaper published damaging allegations about the country's intelligence links with the Central Intelligence Agency.
Following a flurry of urgent meetings lasting into the early hours today, the government obtained a rare High Court injunction against the Sydney-based National Times to stop further installments of a series based on "tens of thousands of pages of classified documents" that the paper said it had acquired on the activities of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) and other intelligence bodies.
But Hawke's Labor Party administration was unable to halt the first part, consisting of three articles and headlined "How ASIO Betrayed Australia to the Americans."
It was the first time that such information about the secret ASIO and its U.S. intelligence connections had been published, and it seemed certain to have far-reaching consequences for Australia's foreign relations and domestic politics.
The U.S. Embassy here declined comment on the story.
Political observers likened the case to that of the Pentagon Papers and said it could lead to a major review of ASIO, which long has been viewed with suspicion by some members of the Labor Party. Hawke and his Labor Party came to power in a national election two months ago, sweeping out the conservative coalition of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser.
In its potentially most explosive charge, The National Times said members of ASIO, Australia's equivalent of the FBI, "handed over potentially damaging information to American authorities about prominent Australian figures during secret visits to the U.S. over many years."
The paper quoted top-secret documents as revealing that the practice was uncovered by an investigative Royal Commission in the mid-1970s but closely held by the Fraser government. It said the information, ranging from accusations of subversive tendencies to personal peccadilloes, gave the CIA "ammunition to use against Australian politicians and senior officials regarded unfavorably by ASIO."
The paper cited no names of persons supposedly targeted or examples of any activity against them.
However, allegations have resurfaced recently of CIA involvement in the demise of the previous Labor government of prime minister Gough Whitlam, who was fired during an economic crisis in November 1975 by then-governor general Sir John Kerr and replaced by Fraser. Both Kerr and the U.S. government have denied any CIA role in the move.
In a terse explanation of the injunction against The National Times, Hawke said at a news conference today that he was "disturbed" by the prospect that sensitive information about prominent Australians has been passed to the CIA. But he dodged a question about whether his government would undertake a review of ASIO.
He said authorities currently were trying to determine how such a mass of secret material could have been leaked.
The injunction was fully supported by the opposition Liberal Party of former prime minister Fraser. The party's new leader, Andrew Peacock, said in an interview today that he agreed to the move in a late-night meeting with Hawke. He said the injunction called for the seizure of the documents and prohibited The National Times from passing them to any other party.
In a written statement, Hawke said his government would not "take such action simply out of annoyance or embarrassment. The fact is that the allegations made to this stage already go to the gravest issues of Australia's international relations and domestic security considerations." He said he would not concede that all of the allegations in today's issue are accurate, but said "some of them are." He refused to confirm or deny any of the specific charges.
The most detailed charges in the first part of the series--dubbed "The Austeo Papers," a reference to their security classification of "Australian Eyes Only"--concerned an alleged American failure to share important intelligence with Australia on China's February 1979 invasion of Vietnam.
The United States maintains several strategically vital electronic communications facilities in Australia to collect information from spy satellites, especially on Soviet missile tests, and relay messages to American forces. Agreements governing the "joint facilities," including a secret site in central Australia known locally as the "space base," call for sharing the intelligence with Australia.
The National Times quoted a top-secret review ordered by the Fraser Cabinet as complaining that because of a mysterious cutoff in U.S. signals intelligence at a vital time, the first warning of the actual Chinese invasion of Vietnam on Feb. 17, 1979, came from a public announcement by Peking. The paper also said the United States refused to pass on a warning of an invasion given by Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping during a visit to Washington in early February of that year.
The purported review criticized the "poor" performance of Australian intelligence in predicting the Chinese attack, which it said was of "critical importance to an area of prime political and strategic concern to Australia."
Another article questioned the utility for Australia of "often arcane" information derived from a joint spy project in Hong Kong with U.S. and British agencies. Called "Kittiwake," the communications intercept project is directed against mainland China, the paper said.
It also discussed sophisticated intercept equipment reportedly located in Australian diplomatic missions in neighboring Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Hawke said these allegations were likely to arouse protests from those two governments.
Besides the disclosures' potential for triggering a left-wing move to reform ASIO and make it more accountable, political observers said they could lead to a challenge of the larger Australian-U.S. security relationship.
Already, leftist members of Parliament have begun asking the new government questions about the joint facilities, notably the "space base" at Pine Gap near Alice Springs.
In fact, the Labor Party's platform calls for fuller discussion with the United States of the functions and purposes of the facilities. One proposal advanced during the recent election campaign by Bill Hayden, who is now the foreign minister, was to station an Australian official permanently at the Pentagon or in Washington to help monitor the activities of the bases more closely.
According to Australian officials, the desire for a fuller accounting is likely to be raised when Hawke visits Washington in mid-June for talks with President Reagan.
The injunction against The National Times is scheduled to come up again at the High Court, Australia's equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, on Tuesday. But political observers believe it unlikely that The National Times can succeed in overturning the order.