TOPICS: Passing of Sergeant Brett Woods; Afghanistan and insurgents; Defence Security Authority.
Minister for Defence — Interview with Lyndall Curtis, ABC 24
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to News 24.
STEPHEN SMITH: My pleasure.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Does the death of Brett Wood change the Government’s attitude to Afghanistan? You said the last time you were in this studio that you were a bit more optimistic about the prospects, but Sergeant Wood’s death must [indistinct] that optimism somewhat.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well any death is a terrible tragedy for the family concerned and it’s a terrible blow to the nation. So the wind is always taken out of your sails when a tragedy and a fatality occurs.
But, as a general proposition, we do believe we’ve made progress in the last 12 months; that we’ve consolidated some gains over the winter months. We’ve always known that we had to steal ourselves for the current northern summer fighting season and that further fatalities, further casualties were in prospect. And it’s deeply sad that it’s occurred so soon into the current fighting season, but our resolve remains. We believe we’re on track to effect a transition to Afghan-led security responsibility in Uruzgan Province by the end of 2014. And we are also — our own analysis is that applies equally to Afghanistan generally.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Two other soldiers were injured seriously in the incident which killed Sergeant Brett Woods, and three other soldiers were injured in another incident. Do you have an update on their condition?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, on the three who were injured in the separate incident, they are all satisfactory. At no stage were any of their injuries at the serious; or very serious level. I’m very pleased to be able to indicate that the latest advice I have this morning is that the two who are seriously injured are now in a satisfactory condition. They’re both in an International Security Assistance Force medical facility in Afghanistan, and so we’re now confident that they will make a full recovery. That’s very good news, because they have variously been listed as seriously ill or very seriously ill. So they’re now satisfactory and stable and that’s a very good thing for them and a great relief to their families and a great relief to us.
LYNDAL CURTIS: You say Australian troops — the forces are making ground in Afghanistan. There’s a report in the West Australian, which you may not have seen, that says Australian forces have killed around 1500 insurgents in the last 12 months. Do you know if that figure is factual, if that’s the sort of scale of effort there’s been against the insurgents?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, I need to say I’m highly embarrassed that I haven’t seen that report in my own newspaper, the West Australian, so you’ve got me — you’ve got me on a bad day in that respect.
I think it’s important to make this point, which the Prime Minister made yesterday; we have suffered, now, 24 terrible fatalities. In a quantitative sense, or measure, the Taliban casualties are much larger. I don’t think it actually helps to do that statistical analysis. I’m not running away from it. What is more important than a statistical analysis is capacity to hold ground in a security sense and then to be able to transfer that to Afghan security forces, in particular the Afghan Police, to enable, if you like, more appropriate security mechanisms. When the Afghan Police are running affairs you know that you’ve got a good level of security control.
So my measure of the progress we’re making in Uruzgan Province is not the number of insurgents that we’ve killed, or capture, or removed from the battleground, it’s the way in which we have very substantially extended our patrol bases and very substantially allowed the local Uruzgan people to now conduct themselves generally in a normal way in areas that 12 months or two years ago we would have believed that that was impossible.
LYNDAL CURTIS: So it’s not only the gaining ground, but the holding it and the transferring of power, that’s the-
STEPHEN SMITH: It’s-
LYNDAL CURTIS: ‑measure of success.
STEPHEN SMITH: ‑it’s wresting the ground from the Taliban. It’s holding that ground. It’s transferring responsibility to Afghan security forces, both Afghan National Army and police. Having the confidence to know that when that transfer has occurred, that the ordinary people of Uruzgan can go about their daily lives without the ever present fear of attack by the Taliban.
Now again underlining the point that we have made it clear that the gains in the ground that we have made up is tenuous. There will be a fight back. We do need to consolidate and, in addition to Taliban efforts to recover that ground, there will also be the high profile suicide bombing and propaganda-type attacks which we have seen a number of in recent times.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Now there are a few things happening in other areas of your portfolio. Lateline reported that there have been questions raised about security checks on civilian and military personnel working in military bases, alleging they had been fabricated. There’s been an inquiry launched into that. Do you have any update?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, I’ve just in the last 24 hours or so received a preliminary report from not just the Secretary of my Department, by the Inspector General of Defence and a number of points it’s important to make. Firstly, as soon as these allegations were raised on Lateline we took them very seriously. I immediately asked the Secretary of the Department to institute an investigation led by the Inspector General of Defence.
The preliminary advice is essentially that we’re dealing here with security clearances for Defence personnel only. This was done by the Defence Security Authority before we moved to a more general Australian Government vetting agency. So we’re dealing with security clearances for defence personnel firstly.
Secondly, we’re dealing here with the very first instance of crunching data into computers, so the whistleblowers or the persons concerned were data entry people. There are a range of layers of scrutiny and checking that these materials — this matter had to go through before a security clearance could be granted. So it was the start of the process, not the end of the process. Importantly what our investigation has uncovered is that whilst we don’t believe there’s been a wholesale security breech, we do want to essentially run down every security clearance that was given over this period of time and that will be affected.
It’s also — we’ve also — it’s also been drawn to attention that the whistleblowers concerned have previously raised issues about workplace arrangements, harassment and the like, and that was investigated earlier. It’s now clear that some of the suggestions made on Lateline were made in general terms earlier. They weren’t picked up by the Defence Security Authority. They should have been picked up by the Defence Security Authority and so there’s been an oversight in that respect as well, which is regrettable.
What I’m currently doing is giving consideration to whether the Inspector General of Defence might need some further assistance as he effects a more complete inquiry into each of the individual security clearances and the possibility include either the current Inspector General of Security, or one of her predecessors, but I’m giving some consideration to that now.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.
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