The Australian government is holding an “urgent investigation” into how thousands of highly classified government documents found their way to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, NPR reported.
ABC published a controversial report earlier on Wednesday, detailing how they obtained hundreds of top-secret and highly classified documents in what they dubbed as an “extraordinary breach of national security.” According to a lengthy report from Australia’s largest broadcasting network, the thousands of pages of documents had been left in two filing cabinets, which the government sold off at a second-hand shop in Canberra. The shop is reportedly a place where ex-government furniture is regularly sold off on the cheap.
“The deals can be even cheaper when the items in question are two heavy filing cabinets to which no-one can find the keys,” the ABC said in its news report. The cabinets were purchased for “small change,” the report said, after which it sat unopened for some months until a drill was used to open the locks.
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Inside of the cabinets was the trove of documents now dubbed The Secret Cabinet Files, consisting of thousands of pages that reveal the inner workings of five separate governments that span nearly a decade. According to ABC, an overwhelming majority of the cabinet files were classified, some as “top secret” or “AUSTEO,” meaning they are to be seen by Australian eyes only. Despite the highly classified nature of the secret cabinet files, the ex-government furniture sale was not limited to Australians.
When ABC started publishing excerpts from the secret cabinet files they recovered, it triggered mass speculation about a possible leak in the current government led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull since 2015. However, the network stated that there was no leak from the government, and insisted that no laws had been broken.
Refusing to release any names or details about the person or people who bought the filing cabinets, or how it learned about them, ABC said that it will protect their privacy “at all costs.”
Following the news about the massive national security breach, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet released a statement saying that it’s looking into “the circumstances around the disposal of two Commonwealth Government filing cabinets that allegedly contained classified material.” The NPR reported that no additional details about the investigation were provided.
Under Australian law, the secret cabinet files would have become public only after 20 years had passed, in order for senior ministers to feel they can speak openly and freely in the sanctity of the cabinet room. However, with some of the oldest documents in the secret cabinet files being dated 10 years back, their release might prove to be a serious threat to Australia’s national security.
The ABC report stated that not all of the secret cabinet files they obtained were published. Reporters working on the piece said they’ve withheld documents if the information they held had already been made public, to protect the privacy of public servants, or if they deemed the content of the document posed a threat to national security.
What’s in the secret cabinet files?
The documents contained in the secret cabinet files revealed the inner workings of five separate governments. Despite some media outlets claiming that information about former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was among the most damaging, the information contained in the secret cabinet files didn’t stop at him or his government.
Some of the secret cabinet files revealed that former immigration minister Scott Morrison, who currently serves as Prime Minister Turnbull’s treasurer, tried to limit the number of approved asylum seekers entering Australia in late 2013. According to the ABC report, Morrison arranged delays in security checks so that people who were close to being granted permanent protection would miss the deadline. Morrison’s move reportedly affected about 30 asylum seekers each week.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s expenditure review committee often referred to as “razor gang,” was also mentioned in the secret cabinet files. According to the ABC report, then-prime minister Mr. Abbott, then-treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann considered denying welfare to anyone under 30 years of age. Citing the secret cabinet file, the report said that Abbott’s razor gang requested then-social services minister Kevin Andrews look at how to ban “job snobs” from receiving income support.
Among the more shocking information contained in the secret cabinet files was the fact that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) lost nearly 400 national security files in a period of five years. According to a government stocktake contained in the secret cabinet files, the documents lost by the AFP belong to the powerful National Security Committee (NSC) of the cabinet.
Nearly 200 classified, codeword protected, and sensitive documents were also briefly lost in 2013, the ABC report on the secret cabinet files revealed. The top-secret documents were left in the office of senior minister Penny Wong after the Australian Labour Party lost the 2013 election. The materials listed in the secret cabinet files dealt with topics such as Middle East defense plans, national security briefs, Afghan war updates, intelligence on Australia’s neighbors and details of counter-terrorism operations.
The ABC report stated that these were not the same documents obtained as part of the secret cabinet files and that they were eventually found by security staff who then oversaw their destruction.