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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