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Transcript of interview with Neil Mitchell: 3AW: 13 March 2012: SAS; Kandahar incident

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Minister for Defence - Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW

13 March 2012



DATE: 13 MARCH 2012

TOPICS: SAS; Kandahar incident.

NEIL MITCHELL: On the line we have Defence Minister Stephen Smith. Good morning.

STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Neil.

NEIL MITCHELL: I’m not sure I’ll get an answer here but is it right?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as you would expect it’s been longstanding practice of successive Governments not to comment on intelligence or operational matters and I’m not proposing to deviate from that but there are a couple of general comments that I think it’s important to make in the context of the stories in the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

The first thing I have to say is that the notion that Australian Defence Force personnel or SAS personnel are operating as it’s described in the article, somehow at large in Africa at the edge or the boundary of the law is frankly just wrong.

So that’s the first point and it will come as no surprise to your listeners or to Australians that of course the SAS will play a very important role in counter-terrorism, will work very closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to help protect Australian citizens overseas in the face, for example, of a consular crisis or an evacuation and will also work very closely with our overseas intelligence agency, ASIS, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.

But everything that we do in this area is firstly authorised by law. It’s very important that what we do is authorised by our domestic law and also by international law and everything that occurs is effectively authorised either by the Minister for Defence or the National Security

Committee of the Cabinet, within those very sensible constraints so that we conduct ourselves lawfully but also make sure that we protect our officers who are operating overseas.

NEIL MITCHELL: So if we do have officers in Africa or anywhere else, you would be aware of it?


NEIL MITCHELL: They wouldn’t operate without your knowledge or the Government’s knowledge?

STEPHEN SMITH: They wouldn’t operate without being properly authorised either by the Minister for Defence or the National Security Committee of the Cabinet and they would be operating in accordance with Australian domestic law, they would be operating in accordance with international law, for example the law of armed conflict or international humanitarian law.


STEPHEN SMITH: And they would be doing things which are protecting Australia’s national security interest.

Now, again, the notion that somehow we’ve got SAS or ADF personnel operating at large in Africa which is essentially what the article suggests, is just not right. It would come as no surprise that from time to time Australian officials, whether they’re DFAT officials, whether they’re ASIS officers or Australian Defence Force personnel like the SAS, it would come as no surprise that from time to time they work together where there is a risk to Australians overseas, whether that’s a hostage situation, whether it’s a consular crisis and an evacuation or the like.

NEIL MITCHELL: Has the reporting of this put lives at risk potentially?

STEPHEN SMITH: We live in a world where there’s, a free press and newspapers make their judgments. There are certain constraints in law in terms of what people can identify in terms of defence establishments and the like.

NEIL MITCHELL: It’s also a voluntary D-notice system though.

STEPHEN SMITH: In the end it’s a matter for the judgment and the exercise of discretion of the journalists and the newspapers concerned.

NEIL MITCHELL: But do you believe lives have been endangered here?

STEPHEN SMITH: There’s no reference here in any detailed way to a particular operation so I have to regard that risk as being low. If you ask me the question do I regard this as a helpful contribution? No, I don’t. And why’s that? It’s because I don’t normally, as you would expect, nor have my predecessors become publicly engaged in conversations about these matters for all of the obvious national security interests and I don’t talk about operations for fear of putting operations at risk. I don’t talk about what we do on the intelligence front but there are a couple of things in this story which need to be rebuffed.

NEIL MITCHELL: You’re saying, one, that anything that’s done is done within the domestic and international law and, second, there is no, as I understand it, you’re saying that the SAS is not operating at large in Africa which is the way it’s described.

STEPHEN SMITH: That’s right. That’s right and also there’s another point I think that’s worthwhile making, Neil, and that’s this.

You know, whether it’s a DFAT officer, whether it’s an ASIS officer, whether it’s an ADF personnel overseas, whatever they’re doing we do everything we can to make sure that they’ve got the proper protections in place.

And the starting point for that is to make sure that what they do is authorised by our domestic law, that what they do is authorised by international law and that what they do is approved by the Minister or the National Security Committee of the Cabinet.

NEIL MITCHELL: We all were aware of ASIS and SAS working together, going back to the days of the botched Sheraton raid in the ’80s which was SAS and ASIS practising on a hotel in Melbourne and getting the wrong rooms, practising an anti-terrorism operation, so there’s no secret the SAS and ASIS work together, is there, or can’t you answer that either?

STEPHEN SMITH: Look, as a general proposition, since September 11 we’ve seen a growing - not just with Australia but United States, United

Kingdom generally - a growing, closer relationship between intelligence and Special Forces, particularly on the counter-terrorism front.

And so, again, it’ll come as no surprise to you or your listeners, that our Defence Force personnel, whether that’s the SAS or other Defence Force personnel work very closely with ASIS and with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on these issues.

Now, where we’re dealing with counter-terrorism obviously there’s a very close relationship between the Australian Defence Force and our intelligence service overseas, as you would expect. I mean, this is all about protecting Australians overseas, whether it’s counter-terrorism, whether it’s a consular crisis, whether it’s a kidnapping, and we have to be vigilant and diligent about that but to protect the individuals concerned and to protect our own reputation and to protect the reputation of the ADF and our other officers. All of those things are done in accordance with domestic and international law and are approved by the Government of the day.

NEIL MITCHELL: I know you need to get away. One final question, the rogue US soldier and the mass killing in Afghanistan. Has two points to it. One, has this put Australians in Afghanistan under extra danger and, second, has the Australian Government been in contact with the Afghani Government to pass on condolences?

STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, the Prime Minister and I have both publicly expressed condolences. Our officers have relayed those condolences to Afghan officials. It’s a terrible tragedy, and there’s no doubt that it’s a setback and the fact that the United States have immediately instituted a comprehensive investigation is a good thing.

In terms of the risk of reprisals or adverse consequences, again, for operational reasons, I’ll just say generally we continually monitor our force protection and our arrangements in Afghanistan, whether that is as a result of general matters or as a result of a specific or particular incident.

This is a terrible incident. There’s no doubt it’s a setback but we’re doing everything that you would expect us to do to protect our troops but also to continue to advance our interests in Afghanistan. In the end we want the transition to the Afghan institutions themselves to be able to manage their own security affairs. We don’t want to be there forever.

NEIL MITCHELL: Thank you so much for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Neil, thanks a lot.