Labor pledges inquiry into bugging operation behind whistleblower trial

Labor has announced it would conduct an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding an intelligence operation that saw the prosecution of a whistleblowing former spy and his lawyer.

Independent Senator Rex Patrick introduced a motion in the Senate last night to refer the government's involvement in the bugging of cabinet offices in Timor-Leste almost two decades ago to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee.

Labor rejected the motion, instead pledging to amend intelligence legislation to allow parliamentary committees to look into the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) if elected.

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"In government, we would ensure an inquiry into the circumstances of the intelligence operation conducted by the Australian Secret Intelligent Service in Timor-Leste and the subsequent decision to prosecute Witness K and his lawyer (Bernard) Collaery," Senator Katy Gallagher said while speaking on the motion.

"Labor calls on the Attorney-General to provide an explanation to the Senate of the public interest in continuing to prosecute Mr Collaery."

Labor would also call on former attorney-general Christian Porter to explain his decision to prosecute the men in 2018.

"For reasons that have not been publicly explained, Mr Morrison's former attorney-general, Mr Porter, personally authorised the prosecution of witness K and Mr Collaery," Senator Gallagher said.

"This is despite Mr Porter's predecessor declining to provide that authorisation.

"Labor has been calling for Mr Porter to explain why he suddenly authorised these prosecutions given the charges relate to events alleged to have occurred in 2004 and may have involved senior members of the Howard government."

East Timor Government House (Getty)

The spying scandal began in 2004 when ASIS planted covert listening devices in a room adjacent to the Timor-Leste prime minister's office, amid negotiations over oil and gas fields in the Timor Gap.

Witness K, a senior intelligence officer, felt uncomfortable about the operation and approached the intelligence watchdog, before obtaining permission to talk to Mr Collaery, an approved lawyer.

Witness K was spared jail and given a three-month suspended sentence.

Mr Collaery is continuing to fight the charges against him in the ACT Supreme Court.

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