Australia has suffered a “momentous” security breach involving the publication of cabinet discussions spanning more than a decade after two locked filing cabinets were bought from a second-hand shop and prised open, revealing thousands of secret documents.
According to ABC News, which obtained the documents, the filing cabinets were sold at a discount by a furniture shop in Canberra because they were locked and no-one could find the keys.
An anonymous person bought the cabinets and several months later opened them with a drill, unveiling a trove of documents marked “top secret” or “AUSTEO” (meaning for Australian-eyes only).
The discovery prompted the head of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s department to order an urgent investigation and has already resulted in embarrassing revelations about the governments of former leaders Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott.Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull walks in front of military trucks during a visit to Thales Underwater Systems in Sydney Credit: AAP
Professor John Blaxland, an intelligence and security expert at the Australian National University, said the breach was “quite disturbing” and ministers should ultimately be held accountable.
“The revelations reveal a lax approach to security,” he told news.com.au.
“It is a sobering reminder of the need for accountability and responsibility.”
Adding to the embarrassment, the documents reveal a series of hitherto unknown security breaches by Australian officials, including almost 400 national security files lost by the Australian Federal Police.
The files, lost between 2008 and 2013, were from the National Security Committee, a committee of the government’s most powerful ministers – including the prime minister – which makes decisions about wars, counter-terrorism, foreign relations and other security matters.Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reacts during a media conference in Sydney, Australia Credit: REUTERS
The documents also revealed that 195 top-secret documents were left in the office of Penny Wong, a former finance minister and now a leading opposition MP, after Labor lost the election in 2013.
The documents themselves were not disclosed but apparently involved defence plans to protect the United Arab Emirates from Iranian hostilities, details of missile upgrades and profiles of terror suspects.
Mr Abbott said the release of the trove was a “momentous lapse” and appeared to be due to a mistake by a bureaucrat who had disposed of the filing cabinets without checking them.Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott Credit: AP
"Obviously some absolutely elementary mistake has been made, presumably by a relatively junior or mid-ranking departmental officer,” he told Radio 2GB.
“Certainly someone needs to pay a price, there needs to be some consequence for what is a monumental lapse."
ABC News, the public broadcaster, said it had decided not to publish any documents “if there are national security reasons, if the information is already public, or to protect the privacy of public servants”. Typically, cabinet documents are not released for at least 20 years.
The breach came as Australia’s spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, warned that the threat posed by espionage and foreign interference was worse than during the Cold War.
“While that was obviously a very busy time in that period of history, our assessment is that it’s not on the scale of which we are experiencing today,” Peter Vickery, a deputy director-general at the agency, told a parliamentary committee.
"During the Cold War our adversaries were readily identifiable; it was the Eastern Bloc, the Russians and the East Germans for example. In the current climate, we are facing a raft of different countries that are seeking to conduct espionage and foreign interference. It is a lot more blurred.”
In December, Australia introduced laws curbing foreign political donations and lobbyists following reports about growing meddling by other countries, particularly China.