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Intelligence officer's death under scrutiny

Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Feb 2000


The Federal Government is expected to announce within days a high-level investigation into the circumstances surrounding the suicide of a Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) officer, Mr Merv Jenkins, in Washington last May.

The investigation is likely to be conducted by the Department of Defence's inspector-general of intelligence and security, Mr Bill Blick.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) yesterday revealed it became involved in an investigation of Mr Jenkins, a defence intelligence officer in the Washington embassy, because it was concerned about the inappropriate handling of classified material.

Mr Jenkins committed suicide soon after being questioned by DFAT and Defence officials.

The statement was the first acknowledgement by DFAT that its role in the investigation was far broader than originally disclosed. But it denied its involvement reflected concern about the transfer to the US of intelligence material related to Indonesia or East Timor.

Although Mr Blick has the power to begin investigations, it is expected he will be asked by the Defence Minister, Mr Moore, to conduct the inquiry.

A spokesman for DFAT said yesterday that he could not say what form a review might take, but his department would co-operate fully with any investigation.

Yesterday the Herald reported on disclosures on the ABC's Four Corners of e-mail communications between a DIO security officer and Mr Jenkins a month before his death. They pertained to his passing of classified Australian material to his US counterparts.

One e-mail, sent last May and marked "Timor Issues", warned Mr Jenkins that "issues are becoming extremely sensitive as there are foreign policy implications" and told him "it is imperative that extra care is taken with the passing of material to the US and Canada".

Soon after that e-mail, a DIO colleague of Mr Jenkins alleged to senior DFAT staff in the embassy that Mr Jenkins was mishandling classified material.

DFAT confirmed that on May 31 it wrote to Defence expressing concern about the allegations and what it described as "possible implications for Australia's intelligence relationship with the US". It said the joint investigation into Mr Jenkins "confirmed the seriousness of the issues raised".

The department said that before the start of the investigation, its knowledge of the material mishandled by Mr Jenkins was limited to two cables that did not relate to East Timor.

But the former head of Defence, Mr Paul Barratt, told Four Corners that he believed part of the material Mr Jenkins was passing related to East Timor, and the program reported that Mr Jenkins was specifically questioned about East Timor documents during his interrogation.

The Opposition's spokesman on foreign affairs, Mr Laurie Brereton, said the Four Corners program "reinforces suspicions about the truthfulness of Prime Minister Howard's emphatic denial of any restrictions imposed by his Government on East Timor intelligence sharing with the United States".

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