Former foreign minister Bob Carr. Photo: AFP
Australia’s spy agencies are concerned at potential breaches of official secrecy in Bob Carr’s published diary of his time as foreign minister, and are seeking to limit any damage.
Under special scrutiny is Mr Carr’s disclosure in his book of what appears to be a station of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service in the tiny Gulf nation, United Arab Emirates.
The location and operations of Australia’s overseas spies are classified and kept secret under law.
It is also understood officials in the United States government are unhappy Mr Carr has made explicit the contents of intelligence material shared with Australia, including a CIA report on the character of rebels in Libya - confirming the operation of the agency in that country, in breach of all protocols.
But it is doubtful any prosecution will result from the examination of Mr Carr’s diary - the scrutiny by Australian agencies does not amount to a formal investigation, but is intended to limit any damage from exposure of secret operations and to placate allies.
A spokeswoman for the US embassy in Canberra said, “We do not comment on matters of intelligence.”
The revelations in the book may have also entangled former Labor leader Kim Beazley, now Australia’s ambassador in Washington.
Mr Beazley did not reveal any secrets, but Mr Carr has said he judged it would not damage Australia's interests to public emails from Mr Beazley in the diary that include forthright criticism of US Secretary of State, John Kerry.
One senior official said if Mr Beazley had agreed, it was “unwise”.
The Sunday Age asked Mr Beazley whether Mr Carr had sought permission to include the emails or whether the disclosure could complicate his dealings in Washington.
“When you are an ambassador you don't enter debate, you just roll with the punches,’’ Mr Beazley said.
As foreign minister, Mr Carr had oversight of ASIS, and as a member of the National Security Committee of cabinet, received classified reports and assessments from other agencies in the Australian intelligence community.
The current Foreign Affairs department refused Mr Carr access to official documents from his time as foreign minister to help with writing the book, warning of his obligations to preserve national security.
Mr Carr ignored a written request from Foreign Affairs department secretary, Peter Varghese, for a chance to comment on the manuscript of his diary before publication.
John Blaxland, a researcher on intelligence and security at the Australian National University, described as “unbelievable” Mr Carr’s disclosure of the ASIS station and said advisers could be less trusting of ministers as a result.
“The secret of success in espionage is to keep your success secret,” Dr Blaxland said.
But Mr Carr is unrepentant.
"This criticism would be preposterous if it were not so comic," he told The Sunday Age, and blamed "espionage antics" for causing much greater damage in recent time with Indonesia.
"I refer to the alleged decision to record the phone calls of the Indonesian president and his family.
"I'd like to know where the genius lay in the decision to target trade deals and pass information to the US. Surely even our most junior spies might be reminded the view it is in Australia's interests that Indonesia leverage itself out of poverty," Mr Carr said.
He said Australia had suffered incalculably from the slew of revelations stemming from leaks of US material to Wikileaks and by Edward Snowden.
"These strike me as being vastly more important concerns,'' Mr Carr said.
"I took a lot of precautions, the book has been out three weeks now and it's been read by a lot of people in senior diplomatic and related positions. It's attracted favourable comment.''
Mr Carr also said his diaries are tame compared to recent American political memoirs "bristling with intelligence and military matters".
The diary is a detailed account of his 18 months as foreign minister and includes details of efforts to free Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor, detained in Libya and accused of espionage.
Mr Carr writes of meeting with an official from Oman, Salem Ben Nasser Al Ismaily in June 2012, who he suspects is “more than Oman’s trade adviser, his putative role”.
Mr Carr writes that he asked Mr Ismaily for help with the Taylor case and was told Oman had people “on the ground” in Libya and “referred to our [Australia’s] liaison officer in UAE”.
The term “liaison officer” is regularly used as polite shorthand for spies, a point Mr Carr makes clear, writing: “Liaison officer? Our Ambassador said to me, ‘That would be the other agency you’re responsible for.’ Right.”
Mr Carr later details “a cable based on CIA sources” with a profile of the Zintan militia fighters holding Ms Taylor prisoner.
Later, without attribution, Mr Carr writes he was shown “a secret cable from a source reporting a Libyan contact in Zintan saying that they have completed their investigations and the release of detainees is up to their political masters".