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Transcript of interview with Lyndal Curtis: ABC24: 13 March 2012: SAS; Kirkham report

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Minister for Defence - Interview with Lyndal Curtis, ABC24

13 March 2012



DATE: 13 March 2012

TOPICS: SAS; Kirkham report.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to News 24.


LYNDAL CURTIS: If we could start with the reports that a squadron of SAS soldiers is operating in Africa, performing an intelligence role, is that true?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well normally as you’d expect, like the long-standing practice of successive Governments, I wouldn’t talk about intelligence or operational matters. But the suggestion this morning in the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald that somehow we’ve got Australian Defence Force personnel or SAS personnel operating at large in Africa, rubbing up against the boundaries of the law is just wrong. It’s just wrong.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Does the SAS have an intelligence role?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, I’m not going to go into any of those operational details. But let me make a number of points: of course you would expect that the Australian Defence Force, including the SAS from time to time will work very closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and also work every closely with ASIS - the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, our overseas intelligence service.

But everything which occurs in that general area is done in accordance with our domestic law, it’s done in accordance with our international legal obligations, whether that’s the law of armed conflict, whether it’s international humanitarian law. And we make sure that our officials or officers or personnel operating this space have all of the necessary personal protections.

So the suggestions that they’re operating at large in Africa, rubbing up against the boundaries of the law are wrong. Australians would expect that in terms of protecting our national security interests, protecting the interests of Australians overseas, from time to time you’ll have the Australian Defence Force working closely with DFAT, with ASIS on matters such as consular crises, on kidnappings and counter terrorism.

LYNDAL CURTIS: So they may not be operating at large but may have a more focused role?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well again, I’m not going to draw down into a particular focus because that would rub up against the notion of getting close to an operation or a particular operation. I’m not going to go into the SAS breakdown of particular parts of the regiment. I’m not going to go into particular operations.

But Australians would expect that from time to time, the SAS, together with ASIS, together with DFAT will be doing the necessary work to make sure that Australian interests and Australian individuals overseas are protected. Now whether that’s as a result of a consular crisis, whether it’s a result of counter terrorism work, whether it’s a result of, for example, a kidnapping.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Are there SAS troops operating in Africa at the moment?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’m not going to go into that detail. But what it is important to say is that whenever we have operations overseas by our Defence Force personnel or by ASIS, they are conducted in accordance with our domestic legal obligations. They are conducted in accordance with our international legal obligations. And they are approved either by the Minister of the day or by the National Security Committee of the Cabinet and the individuals concerned are given all of the necessary personal protections so far as their own conduct is concerned.

LYNDAL CURTIS: If we could go to another overseas operation you perhaps are more willing to talk about in Afghanistan, the US has apologised for an American soldier who’s allegedly killed 16 civilians in the Kandahar Province. What are the broader implications of this for foreign troops on Afghan soil?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, it’s a terrible incident. I’ve expressed my condolences to my Afghan counterpart, Minister Wardak. The Prime

Minister has done likewise to President Karzai. I’m pleased that immediately at the from the highest levels of the United States expressed similar condolences to Afghanistan and very pleased that immediately, an exhaustive investigation was put into play. But there’s no point beating around the bush; this is a very bad set-back. Coming so quickly as it does after the recent Koran burning incident, this is a set-back and we have to acknowledge it as such in my view.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Australia has troops in the Kandahar Province. Are you preparing them for the possibility of retaliation?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think three points: firstly, we’ve got just over 200 personnel in Kandahar. They are in the main at Kandahar Airportdealing with our Chinook fleet also with our unmanned aerial observation tasks. But they’re essentially at the airport.

As a general proposition in Kandahar, as in Uruzgan Province where the bulk of our people are, every time there is a specific incident of this nature, and indeed on an ongoing basis, we will regularly review force protection measures and procedures. I’m not going to go into any detail, but obviously one of the first things that occurred was to make sure that all the necessary force protection measures were in place, and that’s occurring both in Kandaharand Uruzgan generally.

LYNDAL CURTIS: If we could go now to matters more of a domestic nature, there’s been a lot of talk about your relationship with Defence. The Chief of the Defence Force says you have a good professional relationship, can you truly say that about your relationship with the senior leadership of Defence?

STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely, I’ve been saying for a week that what people need to be very clear about is a relationship I have with the Chief of the Defence Force, the Vice-Chiefs, the Service Chiefs and the Secretary. And they’re very good working relationships. And the Chief of the Defence Force was overseas from the end of last week, returned yesterday, and he made the same point publically that I’ve been making.

You can’t ascribe to the current leadership of the Defence Force or the Department the views articulated by former personnel or commentators or Liberal party advisors. We’ve got very big challenges, whether it’s transition in Afghanistan, whether it’s capability or procurement matters. And when you are engaged in a big reform programme, as I am, you’ll

have people who will have their comments and make their criticisms. That’s fine. But you can’t ascribe the view of outsiders to the view of the Defence leadership.

LYNDAL CURTIS: But one of those who have criticised you is only recently retired, Major-General John Cantwell. He said of you, after he and you toured bases in Afghanistan, that you had no respect for those who chose to serve in uniform, and that you were not happy to take unscheduled questions from the troops there, is that true.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well when I saw Major-General Cantwell’s comments I have to say that I was surprised by them, I was disappointed by them, and I was also saddened by them. I think they are wrong and unfair, and the assertion that somehow I don’t have respect for our troops in the field is just wrong, it’s absolutely wrong and I reject it. I don’t know what is the cause behind Major-General Cantwell’s remarks. I’m not going to get into a blow by blow or running commentary with him, I simply make the point that the assertion that he makes is wrong and unfair. There’s no evidence to his assertion, I’ve been to Afghanistanon four occasions, and these points have not been made by others.

But the real test, the real test in my view of respect and regard for our forces in the field is making sure that as the Minister of the day or the Government of the day, you’re giving them all of the necessary kit and all of the necessary resources to do their job. And that’s what I’ve been doing, that’s what the Government’s been doing.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Have you ever expressed unhappiness at having to take unscheduled questions from troops in Afghanistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’m not going to go into a blow-by-blow about what Major-General Cantwell has said. I simply make the point I thought that when I saw his article, it surprised me. It disappointed me. I was saddened by it. And I thought it created a wrong and an unfair impression - not just of that particular visit, but of my approach and attitude generally as a Minister.

I take my obligations very seriously, whether that is in regard to our general national security interests or our forces in the field, whether they’re in Afghanistan, or whether they’re in peace keeping or peace and security missions in East Timor or in the Solomon Islands. And there’s no evidence frankly to the contrary, and the record of what the Government

has done and I have done in terms of forced protection, in terms of kit and equipment and support is there for everyone to make their judgement about.

LYNDAL CURTIS: One final question on the Kirkham report into the Skype sex scandal. Parts of the report have not been released, most of it in fact. But some have been leaked. The bit that was released seems to debunk allegations made about the treatment of the female Officer Cadet involved after her claims had been made public, including that - and I’m quoting - the female Officer Cadet’s room was not plastered with shaving foam. A leak suggests that it was not shaving foam but was another cleaning product applied. Is that splitting hairs, and does it put doubt over the rest of the claims that Kirkham seems to have debunked?

STEPHEN SMITH: A number of points. My starting point was that I would have preferred the Kirkham inquiry report or an adapted version to be released. But as the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary and I worked through it, we came to the conclusion that for two reasons, firstly there are a couple of criminal trials coming up, and secondly the personal welfare of a number of people involved, including Cadet Kate. That it was difficult, if not impossible, to put out effectively a redacted version.

So we put out what the Chief of the Defence Force and I regarded as a fair and balanced summary of the findings.

LYNDAL CURTIS: But isn’t that bit at least misleading, to say her door was not plastered with shaving foam but another product was used.

STEPHEN SMITH: The media allegation was that her room had been plastered with shaving foam and Kirkham found as a matter of fact that that was not the case. But to make a more general point, Channel 10 have put these matters to air. I don’t know what materials Channel 10 is relying upon.

LYNDAL CURTIS: So is the report wrong?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well neither I nor my office, have provided journalists with any materials other than the ones that were distributed last week at the press conference. The Chief of the Defence Force said last night he believed that it probably came from the letters which are written in the course of an inquiry to interested parties about possible findings.

Kirkham made three findings so far as the issue that I raised in April 2011 were concerned. Firstly he said that Commodore Kafer had not made an error of judgement in allowing unrelated disciplinary proceedings to continue at the same time as the Skype incident was at its peak. Secondly that a different decision maker could have made a different decision, i.e., could have stopped them. And thirdly, it was unfortunate that he didn’t have a conversation with Kate and her defending officer. He doesn’t go further, but the implication is that if there’d been such a conversation there may have been a different outcome.

Now on the base of those three findings, I say that I don’t apologise in any for when this matter was at its peak, for making sure that the interests of an 18-year-old woman who was the potential innocent victim of an alleged serious sexual abuse, that her interests were some way protected or taken care of. Nor do I apologise for the fact that it is wrong in principle to in the course of such a matter, to bring into play the character or the conduct of the innocent victim. Now, I’ve made those points, I’m not resiling from them. But as the Chief of the Defence Force said yesterday, that was last week’s story, we’ve now got a range of challenges whether it’s transition in Afghanistanor budget or capability to get on with. And that’s what I’m doing, getting on with the job.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.