MEDIA RELEASE

DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE AUSTRALIA

D2
15 February 2000

Media Reports Concerning the Handling of Classified Material in the Australian Embassy in Washington

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade categorically denies reports by Four Corners on 14 February and the Sydney Morning Herald this morning, that its involvement in the investigation into alleged mishandling of sensitive classified material by a Defence Intelligence Organisation officer based in the Australian Embassy in Washington reflected concerns about transfer to the United States of intelligence material relating to Indonesia or East Timor.

The allegations of the mishandling of information first came to the Department's attention in late May last year, when Defence staff at the Embassy drew the matter to the attention of senior DFAT staff at the Post.

On 31 May the Department wrote to the Department of Defence, at a senior level, expressing concern about the allegations and about possible implications for Australia's intelligence relationship with the United States. The letter noted that DFAT had an important stake in the matter because of its whole-of-Government role in managing the Embassy, its responsibility for mission security and because sensitive DFAT documents may have been compromised.

The Department of Defence subsequently agreed to a joint investigation, which was undertaken in May-June. This investigation confirmed the seriousness of the issues raised.

It should be noted that, prior to the investigation, DFAT's knowledge of the content of the DFAT material allegedly mishandled was limited to two DFAT cables, neither of which related to East Timor.

From DFAT's perspective, the impetus for the investigation was concern about inappropriate handling of highly sensitive classified material, produced by DFAT and other Departments and agencies, and not the actual subject matter of the documents.

The Department would also like to correct the view that it sought to withhold intelligence material on Indonesia or East Timor from the United States because of alleged policy differences. There was no such intention nor significant policy differences in this area.