The Federal Government has stepped up its legal fight to prevent the release of secret intelligence papers that would shed new light on the deaths of the Balibo Five journalists in East Timor in 1975.
In one of the new Government's first decisions, Attorney-General Robert McClelland this week signed a ''public interest certificate'' to prevent a direct challenge to Defence claims that the release of intelligence reports written in the lead-up to Indonesia's December 1975 invasion of East Timor would ''prejudice the security, defence or international relations of Australia''.
The department earlier this year signalled it would oppose an application by Australian Defence Force Academy lecturer Clinton Fernandes for the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to overturn a decision not to release 41 ''current intelligence reports''.
Defence deputy secretary Peter Jennings told a Senate estimates committee in June that Dr Fernandes's application for access to the reports had been determined within the department's ''new culture'' of openness and that a decision had been taken to withhold the material from public access on national security grounds.
Defence subsequently submitted to the tribunal two secret affidavits sworn by the director of the Defence Signals Directorate, Ian McKenzie, and the deputy director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, Stephen McFarlane. Mr McClelland wrote to DrFernandes on Monday to give notice of his intention to sign a public interest certificate that would prevent DrFernandes or his legal representatives from being present when the department's classified evidence was considered by the tribunal.
A former Australian Army intelligence officer, Dr Fernandes said he had continuing obligations to maintain the confidentiality of classified information more recent and much more sensitive than the 1975 reports under review by the tribunal. However despite Dr Fernandes's offer to enter into specific confidentiality arrangements, Mr McClelland replied on Thursday that Defence's arguments for opposing the release of the reports were very sensitive and must be given the highest level of protection.
Accordingly Dr Fernandes would be denied access to Defence's classified submissions. The reports are understood to confirm former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam's knowledge of Indonesia's preparations to invade East Timor and cross-border incursions that included the raid that resulted in the deaths of the five Australia-based journalists at Balibo.