An investigation into the behaviour of members of the Australian Defence Force has recently been completed and the report stemming from it has been handed to the government. The investigation was undertaken by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force and was led by Major General Justice Paul Brereton1. From this, two things have become crystal clear: firstly, the armed forces and the government do not like the truth; and secondly, David McBride is being punished for revealing the truth.
Earlier, an inquiry was commissioned in 2016 by then Special Operations Commander, Major General Jeff Sengelman, and was backed by then Chief of Army, Angus Campbell. The inquiry was conducted by defence department consultant and military sociologist, Dr Samantha Crompvoets. She initially set out to understand special forces culture, reputation and trust, but her interviews with soldiers led her to deviate from her original objective. Some special forces members began to approach her independently, sometimes on condition of anonymity. Her position as independent of defence, but having been directly engaged by the chief of the defence force, put her in a unique position. Her report revealed that special forces insiders have confidentially disclosed “unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations” by Australian special forces soldiers which extend to a “disregard for human life and dignity”2,3. This report by Crompvoets is what triggered the Brereton investigation.
Brereton’s final report has now been provided to the government and a very heavily redacted version supplied to the media. The report found the following:
- Special forces were responsible for 39 unlawful killings, the vast majority of which involved prisoners, and were deliberately covered up.
- These people were killed in 23 incidents, either by special forces or at the instruction of special forces.
- None of the killings took place in the heat of battle, and they all occurred in circumstances which could constitute the war crime of murder.
- All the victims were either non-combatants or were no longer combatants.
- A total of 25 perpetrators have been identified either as principals or accessories. Some are still serving in the ADF1.
In 2014, a military lawyer for special forces, Major David McBride gathered top secret files from the computers at the Headquarters of the Joint Operations Command, east of Canberra. He compiled the material into a lengthy dossier that charted his complaints about the military. These included the possible war crimes, the handling of sex abuse allegations in the Army and the treatment of women in the ADF. He initially sent his report upwards within the ADF, but was apparently ignored. He then went to the Australian Federal Police, but nothing happened, so he eventually leaked the material to journalists at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)4. This is how the 2017 ABC television report ‘The Afghan Files’ was initiated5. The ABC report was written by Dan Oakes and Sam Clark6. After this story was broadcast, all hell broke loose. Oakes and Clark were notified they were under investigation, ABC offices were raided by the Australian Federal Police, who asked prosecutors to consider charging Oakes for publishing classified information7. McBride was arrested and eventually charged in early 20198.
After an outcry from many parts of the media it was decided that the prosecution of Oakes would not proceed. The Commonwealth Department of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) said there was a reasonable chance of securing a conviction against Oakes over the leaked classified documents that he used to form the basis of his reporting, but that there was no public interest in pursuing a prosecution9. Now there is a great deal of pressure on the government from sections of the media and the public, to drop the case against McBride10. For his leaking of the classified documents, McBride could face a life sentence. That is a measure of how much the government and the defence force hate the truth, for the Brereton report has demonstrated that what McBride leaked was, in fact, the truth. If the prosecution of McBride continues, it will be interesting to hear in his evidence, the names of those in the hierarchy to whom he initially passed his report and who ignored it.
The vindictiveness with which McBride has been pursued is not unusual. This government is pursuing ‘Witness K’, and his lawyer Bernard Collaery with just as much venom and is doing it in secret. Their crime was uncovering the bugging of the Timor L’Este cabinet offices by the Australian Security Intelligence Service for the Howard Government, solely to give Woodside the upper hand in negotiations over their share of Timor Gap hydrocarbons11.
Governments hate the truth, and this one hates it more than many previous Australian governments. That is why they are so addicted to secrecy.