Two file cabinets sold at an ex-government auction in Canberra were found to contain thousands of sensitive and top-secret government documents. The file cabinets were cheap because they were so heavy that no one wanted to lug them home, plus there was no key to open them.
The Australian Broadcast Company (ABC) apparently got hold of the file cabinets and their contents.
The ABC says they have a responsibility to publish the documents:
National security and the inner workings of our government affect the lives of all Australians. These documents reveal how key decisions have been made.
Crucially, they expose repeated security breaches of Australia’s most sensitive and classified documents and a seemingly casual attitude of some of those charged with keeping the documents safe.
The documents span the administrations of four prime ministers, the last being Tony Abbott, who was succeeded by current Prime Minister Malcolm Trumbull.
The documents appear to be mostly administrative in nature, but there are exceptions.
The documents cover Australia’s intelligence priorities and counterterrorism planning. They detail missile upgrades, profiles of suspected militants and Australia’s desire in 2010 for more Indonesian cooperation to stop asylum-seekers reaching Australian shores in fishing boats, the ABC said.
One document refers to an audit that revealed that the Australian Federal Police had lost almost 400 national security files over five years ending 2013.
The documents also reveal that a former finance minister left 195 top-secret papers in her old office when her government was voted out in 2013.
Australian Cabinet documents are usually kept secret for 20 years, before they are made public in a heavily redacted form.
Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, described the discarded documents as “very weird and embarrassing” from a national security and political perspective.
Australia’s allies, including the United States, “would be concerned,” Metcalf said.
I should say so. The ABC claims they have not published some of the more sensitive documents:
We have published some of the documents, but not all. We’ve withheld documents if there are national security reasons, if the information is already public, or to protect the privacy of public servants.
Needless to say, the current Australian government is not amused.
While Australians have been amused by the manner in which the documents came to light, government officials are furious at the leak. On Wednesday, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC) announced an urgent investigation. Almost all of the files are classified, some as “top secret” or “AUSTEO”, which means they are to be seen by Australian eyes only.
Terry Moran, who was PMC secretary from 2008 to 2011, told ABC’s 7.30 the discovery was a “great surprise” and whoever was responsible for disposing of the cabinets “must be found and sacked”.
The ABC insists “this was not a leak.” The fact that a news organization obtained them and published them would seem to contradict that assertion. The ABC is referring to the idea that the documents were left or misplaced by some numskull bureaucrat and ended up being exposed, so the classified information literally fell into their laps and they just couldn’t resist the juicy opportunity to publish them.
Since the ABC did not have permission to publish the documents, the only logical conclusion you can come to is that this was a serious breach in national security — a leak. Did the news organizations ever consider going to the government and simply giving them back? Of course not. No matter how they got the documents, there is no difference between someone handing them an envelope in a back alley and someone giving them a couple of file cabinets full of secret files. In both cases, they publish the secrets, deciding for themselves what the public has a right to know and what they don’t.