Minister of Defence Stephen Smith on WikiLeaks and Australia’s detainee management framework in Afghanistan

ASHLEIGH GILLON: Join­ing me this morn­ing from Can­ber­ra is the Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith. Min­is­ter, good morn­ing to you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morn­ing.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: One of the key jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for Australia’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the war in Afghanistan is that the allies want to clamp down on al-Qae­da in the region. This cable sug­gests that that’s already hap­pened, would you agree with the assess­ment?

STEPHEN SMITH: First­ly, I don’t com­ment on intel­li­gence pub­licly, that’s long­stand­ing prac­tice of all Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ments. And I’m not propos­ing to get involved in a run­ning com­men­tary on what appears in a news­pa­per alleged­ly sum­maris­ing a con­ver­sa­tion between mem­bers of the intel­li­gence community. 

But very gen­er­al­ly I’m hap­py to talk about the threat that inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism pos­es to Aus­tralia, both in the con­text of Afghanistan and Indone­sia. And whilst it is the case that we’ve made progress against al-Qae­da in Afghanistan, whilst is the case that togeth­er with Indone­sia, progress has been made against Jamar Islamir in Indone­sia, the threat of those two organ­i­sa­tions and the threat of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism con­tin­ues. And that’s reflect­ed by the Government’s Counter-Ter­ror­ism White Paper which we released ear­li­er this year. It’s a regret­table fact of mod­ern life that this threat will be with us for a long peri­od of time. It’s endur­ing, it’s not lim­it­ed to one or two organisations.

ASHLEIGH GILLON: Has that threat though decreased in recent years?

STEPHEN SMITH: I don’t believe so and that’s why, not just Aus­tralia but oth­er Gov­ern­ments, oth­er coun­tries through­out the world have con­tin­ued to be absolute­ly vig­i­lant about counter ter­ror­ism mat­ters. That’s why we work very close­ly, not just with the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force coun­tries in Afghanistan deal­ing with inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism in the Afghanistan/Pakistan bor­der area, but it’s why we work very close­ly with Indone­sia and oth­er coun­tries in our region.

ASHLEIGH GILLON: Just to clar­i­fy sor­ry, you’re say­ing that despite all of our efforts in Afghanistan, in our own region, that in recent years since per­haps 11 Sep­tem­ber and the Bali bomb­ings, the threat has­n’t decreased at all?

STEPHEN SMITH: There is an ongo­ing threat of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism, an ongo­ing threat of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism to Aus­tralia and Aus­tralians through­out the world.

ASHLEIGH GILLON: And that threat is as high now as it was back then?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there’s no point, noth­ing to be gained by engag­ing in rel­a­tiv­i­ties. What we do know is that in recent years, in the last cou­ple of decades, we have seen emerge a threat to Aus­tralia, the threat to oth­er coun­tries of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism. We have regret­tably been on the receiv­ing end of that, Aus­tralians, whether it’s been in Bali, in Jakar­ta, in the Unit­ed States or in Europe, and we’ve seen the ter­ri­ble atroc­i­ties con­tin­ue. We have made ground we believe in Indone­sia and that’s been a result of the very good work of the Indone­sian author­i­ties work­ing in close coop­er­a­tion with us. 

We have made ground we believe in Afghanistan but the threat con­tin­ues. One of the fea­tures of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism is it is very resilient, it is not restrict­ed to one or two organ­i­sa­tions or one or two indi­vid­u­als. It’s endur­ing, its’ resilient and the threat is ever present. And that’s why, not just the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment, but oth­er Gov­ern­ments through­out the world con­tin­ue to be vig­i­lant in efforts to reduce the threat and to pro­tect their citizens.

ASHLEIGH GILLON: How con­cerned are you that south­ern Philip­pines is emerg­ing as a ter­ror­ist haven?

STEPHEN SMITH: In our region we work very close­ly with coun­tries who do have dif­fi­cul­ties either from ter­ror­ism or from insur­gent activ­i­ty, whether it’s the Philip­pines or whether, for exam­ple, it’s in south­ern Thai­land, and we work very close­ly with those coun­tries. But again, the gen­er­al com­ment can be made whether it’s the Philip­pines, whether it’s Afghanistan, whether it’s the horn of Africa, whether it’s Yemen in the Gulf, that we know that there is a threat and Aus­tralia has to play its role in the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty in seek­ing to stare down that threat and counter that threat.

ASHLEIGH GILLON: But is the south­ern Philip­pines a par­tic­u­lar con­cern for you?

STEPHEN SMITH: We have been work­ing close­ly with the Philip­pines Gov­ern­ment over a peri­od of time, over a num­ber of years, assist­ing the Gov­ern­ment of the Philip­pines with an insur­gent threat that they have in Min­danao. That’s well known. We’re not the only coun­try who pro­vides assis­tance to the Philip­pines in that respect, oth­er coun­tries from our region do. But that is just one exam­ple through­out our region and through­out the world where Gov­ern­ments, not just Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ments, have to be vig­i­lant in efforts to counter ter­ror­ism and pro­tect the cit­i­zens of our nation and oth­er nations.

ASHLEIGH GILLON: You’ve said that so far these Wik­iLeaks haven’t posed a nation­al secu­ri­ty risk to Aus­tralia. In that case has Julian Assange real­ly done any­thing wrong? Do you per­son­al­ly believe that there is a strong argu­ment and the pub­lic has a right to know some of this stuff?

STEPHEN SMITH: First­ly what I’ve said is that in the case of ear­li­er releas­es of Wik­iLeaks cables direct­ly in the defence area, we’ve done an exhaus­tive assess­ment in the case of those cable leaks, so far as oper­a­tional and nation­al secu­ri­ty inter­est mat­ters are con­cerned in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while we just need a lit­tle bit more time to con­clude our view, we’ve come to the con­clu­sion that no oper­a­tional secu­ri­ty mat­ters were put at risk. But more gen­er­al­ly, the release of such doc­u­men­ta­tion, whether it’s in respect of Iraq or Afghanistan or more gen­er­al­ly is not in my view in Australia’s nation­al inter­est or in the inter­na­tion­al community’s interest.

It does run the risk that oper­a­tional mat­ters can be put at risk. It does run the risk that people’s wel­fare and well­be­ing can be prej­u­diced and in the case of the most recent round of cables, it runs a very grave risk that the dis­course between the nations, the dis­course between diplo­mats won’t be as frank and as robust as it needs to be in the pur­suit of inter­na­tion­al and diplo­mat­ic relations.

So this is not in my view a good devel­op­ment and whilst peo­ple might be inter­est­ed in this par­tic­u­lar cable or that par­tic­u­lar view, my own judge­ment is that you need to be very care­ful in this area and the last thing we want is to stop coun­tries hav­ing frank and robust exchanges with each other.

ASHLEIGH GILLON: What would you say to those peo­ple though who have labelled Julian Assange a terrorist?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s not a label that I have used. 

I mean first­ly, he is the sub­ject of judi­cial pro­ceed­ings in Swe­den, cur­rent­ly the sub­ject of bail and extra­di­tion hear­ings in the Unit­ed King­dom on mat­ters entire­ly unre­lat­ed to the release of cables or diplo­mat­ic exchanges, and those things need to be dealt with on their mer­its. He’s cur­rent­ly before a British court in respect of bail mat­ters. The Swedish author­i­ties want to return him to Swe­den for tri­al on mat­ters entire­ly unre­lat­ed to these events and that’s entire­ly a mat­ter for the British jus­tice sys­tem and the Swedish jus­tice sys­tem. And those mat­ters will be resolved no doubt fair­ly and objec­tive­ly by those two judi­cial systems.

ASHLEIGH GILLON: Yes­ter­day, just on anoth­er issue, you con­firmed the detainee pro­cess­ing arrange­ments in place in Afghanistan. You said that for now our sol­diers only have 96-hours to screen Tal­iban sus­pects before hand­ing them over to the Amer­i­cans or to the Afghan forces. 

The Defence Asso­ci­a­tion is say­ing that that’s just not good enough, it says there’s a seri­ous morale prob­lem because often the troops cap­ture peo­ple only to see them released a few days lat­er, and some­times they go on to risk their lives cap­tur­ing the same peo­ple again. Do you acknowl­edge that that would be seri­ous­ly frus­trat­ing for our troops and that a change is needed?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think the com­ments from the Aus­tralian Defence Asso­ci­a­tion have mas­sive­ly over­stat­ed the issue and I reject absolute­ly the notion or the asser­tion that there is a morale problem. 

The his­to­ry of this is quite straight for­ward, which I detailed yes­ter­day. When I was in Afghanistan a cou­ple of months ago, the issue of the 96-hour peri­od was raised with me, it was also raised with the Prime Min­is­ter, it was also raised with the Leader of the Oppo­si­tion and I made it clear that that issue would be some­thing the Gov­ern­ment would exam­ine. So cur­rent­ly the rel­e­vant Gov­ern­ment agen­cies and depart­ments are look­ing at that issue and it will fall for Min­is­te­r­i­al and Gov­ern­ment con­sid­er­a­tion next year. 

ASHLEIGH GILLON: Do you expect there will be a change?

STEPHEN SMITH: I’ve indi­cat­ed yes­ter­day quite open­ly that my start­ing posi­tion is that I don’t see the need for a change. The 96-hour peri­od is the ISAF peri­od, the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force peri­od. That peri­od can be extend­ed for med­ical or logis­ti­cal rea­sons but my cur­rent judge­ment is that that peri­od is suf­fi­cient to enable the Aus­tralian Defence Force per­son­nel to do their job, which is an ini­tial screen­ing of peo­ple who are detained. 

And then sub­ject to an assess­ment of the peo­ple they have detained, whether they are hand­ed over to the Afghan author­i­ties in Tarin Kowt or to the Unit­ed States author­i­ties in Par­wan Province and I out­lined those arrange­ments yes­ter­day, but we are giv­ing con­sid­er­a­tion to that 96-hour peri­od as a result of it being raised with me and the Prime Min­is­ter when we were both last in Afghanistan. And that’s a sen­si­ble thing to do and we’ll do that in an exhaus­tive method­i­cal way.

ASHLEIGH GILLON: Just final­ly Stephen Smith, the Wik­iLeaks releas­es last week did also sug­gest that when you were For­eign Min­is­ter you were intim­i­dat­ed by the brief and also by Kevin Rudd always look­ing over your shoul­der and watch­ing close­ly at what you were doing. Were you sur­prised to see that out­lined in those US cables?

STEPHEN SMITH: I’m very hap­py to let oth­er peo­ple make judge­ments about the job I do, whether it’s the job I’ve done as For­eign Min­is­ter or the job I’ve done as Defence Min­is­ter and con­tin­ue to do. 

I’ve also made the point gen­er­al­ly, just as a gen­er­al propo­si­tion, cables are a bit like news­pa­per — some­times you’ll see gos­sip, some­times you’ll see seri­ous and sen­si­ble analy­sis. But peo­ple should­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly believe that one diplomat’s view in one cable about one issue nec­es­sar­i­ly reflects a con­sid­ered or delib­er­a­tive view. So there’s plen­ty of opin­ion and com­ment out there. I’m very hap­py for peo­ple gen­er­al­ly to make a judge­ment about the con­tri­bu­tion I make to our nation­al secu­ri­ty effort.

ASHLEIGH GILLON: Stephen Smith, thank you.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. 

Press release
Min­is­te­r­i­al Sup­port and Pub­lic Affairs,
Depart­ment of Defence,
Can­ber­ra, Australia 

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