Apparently, two filing cabinets filled with thousands of files turned up at a second hand shop in Canberra. These files were secret government documents, which found there way to the ABC. Some of them were published, on the grounds of public interest. The ABC reporter is Ashlynne McGhee. Parts have been republished below, on the basis of likely interest and because they show that the thinking of key ministers and government, is not always quite what is presented to the public.
The loss of national security files
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet regularly audits all government departments and agencies that have access to the classified documents to ensure they are securely stored.
Documents show that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) lost nearly 400 national security files in five years.
The classified documents lost by the AFP are from the powerful National Security Committee (NSC) of the cabinet, which controls the country’s security, intelligence and defence agenda.
The secretive committee also deploys Australia’s military and approves kill, capture or destroy missions.
Most of its documents are marked “top secret” and “AUSTEO”, which means they are to be seen by Australian eyes only.
An email exchange between the cabinet secretariat and the AFP reveals the documents were lost between 2008 and 2013, while Labor was in government.
The exchange does not reveal any investigation by either the secretariat or the AFP into how the documents were lost, who lost them, or where they might be now.
It also does not reveal the nature, nor the content of the missing NSC documents.
Troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, counter-terrorism operations, foreign relations and Australia’s border protection were among the top-secret and sensitive issues decided in the five-year period.
The cabinet secretariat’s general practice was to give up searching and write off lost documents if they could not be found after consecutive audits, according to another document in The Cabinet Files.
Removing the right to silence when questioned by police considered
John Howard’s National Security Committee (NSC), gave serious consideration to removing an individual’s unfettered right to remain silent, when questioned by police.
The powerful committee’s debate on counter-terrorism laws came just after the arrest of Mohammed Haneef and is documented in files marked “secret” and “AUSTEO”.
Dr Haneef was accused of aiding in the 2007 Glasgow terror attack, but amid huge public controversy, the allegations were later disproven and Dr Haneef was awarded compensation by the Australian government.
The cabinet documents reveal then attorney-general Philip Ruddock, pushed for a range of new offences while Dr Haneef was still under investigation.
Critically, one of the proposals was to modify the right to remain silent during a terrorism investigation.
“I would also like NSC to consider whether amendments should be made to a suspect’s right to remain silent, to allow a court to draw adverse inferences in a terrorism trial where an accused relies, on evidence which he or she failed to mention, when questioned by police,” Mr Ruddock wrote in his NSC submission.
The proposal was supported by the Australian Federal Police and ASIO but rejected by the majority of the senior ministers in the NSC.
Liberal MP Kevin Andrews is the only current politician who was a member of the NSC at that time.
Current ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis was then an adviser in the prime minister’s National Security Division, and along with a colleague, he argued strongly against Mr Ruddock’s proposal.
“Implementing a new provision to allow adverse inferences to be drawn from a failure to mention something when questioned, is likely to involve more risks than benefits and will engage lawyers much earlier on in any investigation,” Mr Lewis wrote.
He also warned the raft of proposed changes would be controversial.
“Any strengthening of the counter-terrorism powers will attract significant media and public debate,” Mr Lewis said.
Andrew Bolt brought in as an advisor
The divisive political commentator who breached section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, was consulted when the federal government moved to change it, according to the draft legislation contained in The Cabinet Files.
The cabinet documents reveal Andrew Bolt was asked how to stop the act’s
Bolt denies he was consulted on changes to the act. The Federal Court ruled Bolt breached the act, when he published an opinion piece about “white-skinned Aborigines” and their entitlement to welfare.
Justice Mordecai Bromberg found the articles were not written in good faith and contained factual errors.
Section 18C makes it illegal to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone on the basis of their ethnicity, race or colour.
Bolt led the charge of conservative politicians and commentators campaigning to change it, arguing it inhibited free speech because the threshold was too low.
He was the only person specifically named as having been consulted.
The draft cabinet submission states:
“All points of view were canvassed including those of ethnic community groups, Indigenous leaders, leaders of the Jewish community, Mr Andrew Bolt himself and backbench members of the government.”
The cabinet also considered extending discrimination protection on the basis of “sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status”, but ultimately decided against it.
Slowing down security checks on asylum seekers
Scott Morrison agreed his department should intervene in ASIO security checks, to try to prevent asylum seekers from being granted permanent protection visas.
In late 2013, the then-immigration minister was rushing through changes that would prevent any asylum seekers who arrived by boat, from ever being granted permanent protection in Australia.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection advised Mr Morrison that up to 700 asylum seekers “must” be granted permanent protection under the existing legislation.
The minister was clearly concerned, requesting the exact number and advice on whether he could confer an alternative visa.
The department wrote back with a range of “mitigation strategies” and the minister signed up.
In an unorthodox move, Mr Morrison agreed his secretary should write to the director-general of security to request ASIO delay security checks, so that people close to being granted permanent protection, would miss the deadline.
The document states that if ASIO did not comply with Mr Morrison’s request, 30 extra asylum seekers would likely be granted permanent protection each week.
It meant refugees about to start a new, permanent life in Australia, would only be allowed to stay for three years.
He also agreed to reissue an order to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and Refugee Review Tribunal to hear cases in a particular order, to further slowdown processing.
The advice prepared for Mr Morrison notes that ASIO is not formally bound by the request, but the two tribunals are.
The secretary of the Immigration Department wrote to ASIO, but it is unclear whether ASIO complied with Mr Morrison’s request.