Australian cabinet files accidentally released in… an old filing cabinet

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Cabinet Files

A huge cache of classified cabinet files from the governments of five different Australian prime ministers has been made public by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) today. Incredibly, the files were accidentally released when left inside a two old filing cabinets were sold off as government surplus.

Filing cabinets full of cabinet files

Described as one of the biggest breaches of cabinet security in Australian history, the documents were purchased unknowingly from a shop that sold excess government furniture in Australia’s capital, Canberra.

Large and heavy, and with no keys to open their contents, the filing cabinets were sold off on the cheap. It was not until months later, when the owner forced open the locks with a drill, that the thousands of pages of documents were found inside. Nearly every recovered document is classified and some as top secret or for Australian eyes only (AUSTEO).

Of course, the Canberra second-hand furniture shop was open to anyone who walked in the door, and could have been purchased by a national from any country. Once found, there was nothing to prevent the contents from being sold or handed over to a foreign power. Fortunately they were instead offered to ABC, but it has resulted in a major embarrassment for Malcolm Turnbull’s government, and several of its predecessors.

What’s inside

ABC published highlights from the documents, now referred to collectively (and inevitably) as “The Cabinet Files.”

Here is some of the more shocking revelations:

Lost documents about other lost documents

Several of the documents in the Cabinet Files are accounts of other document losses.

These include over 400 national security files lost by the Australian Federal Police (AFP). The documents the AFP lost are from Australia’s National Security Committee (NSC), which is just as central to Australian security, defence, and intelligence as it sounds.

And in a farcical security breach in 2013, nearly 200 top secret and code word protected files were left behind in the office of outgoing Senator Penny Wong following her election loss. She had been serving as an important member of the same NSC, but did not take security seriously enough to dispose of her top secret files when she cleared out.

Luckily for the absent-minded security honcho, a security team found the documents first and disposed of them before they could go farther astray.

You don’t have the right to remain silent

Under the government of Prime Minister John Howard, Australians nearly lost the right to remain silent when accused of a crime.

The radical restriction on civil liberties was considered during the case of Dr Mohammed Haneef, who was accused of assisting the Glasgow bombers in 2007. Haneef was eventually acquitted, and even paid compensation by the Australian authorities, but at the time the NSC were seriously considering a roll-back of a basic right of the accused.

The attorney-general, Philip Ruddock, submitted the following to the NSC:

“I would also like NSC to consider whether amendments should be made to a suspect’s right to remain silent to allow a court to draw adverse inferences in a terrorism trial where an accused relies on evidence which he or she failed to mention when questioned by police.”

The idea was supported by the AFP and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (which has a roughly similar role to America’s FBI) but rejected by the majority of senior ministers.

No welfare for under 30s

Prime Minister Tony Abbott considered preventing Australians under 30 from accessing income support in his 2014 budget.

Abbott’s employment minister, Eric Abetz, argued the result could lead to problems with law and order saying, “Young people in financial hardship could experience homelessness, be driven to crime and other antisocial behaviour, family breakdown and possible criminal flow-on resulting from removing the social security safety net.”

Although the proposal would have shaved $9 billion off the budget, fears of lawlessness appear to have swayed Abbott to back down.

Just the beginning

With thousands of pages to wade through, ABC have only released the highlights of the Cabinet Documents today. More revelations will surely follow.

Considering how leak-prone it is, there will doubtlessly be some new rules on how the government manages its secret papers. And it is possible that second-hand furniture shop in Canberra might not get as many filing cabinets to sell on in future.

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