The head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) has made a historic appearance before a tribunal to argue intelligence files on East Timor and Indonesia cannot yet be released because his agency is too busy.
In what is believed to be the first case of its kind, ASIS Director-General Paul Symon fronted the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to respond to a request for 40-year-old documents that cover the period of the Balibo massacre.
The application for the highly-classified papers has come from Canberra-based academic Clinton Fernandes, who has battled since 2014 for access to ASIS intelligence reports on the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.
During his appearance which lasted about an hour, Mr Symon was quizzed over why it had taken ASIS several months to respond to questions from the National Archives.
The ASIS boss explained that in a “disruptive” world his intelligence agency faced many competing pressures and he had to prioritise various tasks and challenges for his staff.
The Balibo Five: Brian Peters, Malcolm Rennie, Gary Cunningham, Gregory Shackleton, and Anthony Stewart, killed October 1975 (ABC)
Speaking outside the tribunal, Mr Symon rejected suggestions his organisation was trying to keep secret its knowledge of the events leading up to Indonesia’s invasion and the deaths of five Australian newsmen at Balibo in 1975.
“It’s not the issue that we won’t release documents, we are working through a process and that’s what I’m here discussing with the tribunal,” Mr Symon said.
“It’s a pity that its been characterised that we are withholding documents.”
Grieg Cunningham, the brother of murdered Channel Seven cameraman Gary Cunningham, said he and other Balibo relatives had already waited too long for answers.
“All we need is the truth,” Mr Cunningham told the ABC.
“We are not after justice in the respect of vengeance to hang people up or anything like that. We just want to be told what happened.
“After 43 years, we’re entitled to that and I expect it”.
But Mr Symon said he did not accept that his organisation was taking too long to release the historic records.
“The process requires my staff to work through those records line by line and to make sure we don’t release information that is adverse to our own national interests, that’s my responsibility,” he said.
“This is not a desire to withhold, this is a desire to make sure I can manage all that the Government asks of the Secret Intelligence Service and balance those priorities against all the other administrative, management, operational issues I’ve got to manage.”