The Briefing: Reactions to the Brereton report span grief, anger, defensiveness and more

By Chris Woods

Friday November 20, 2020

Image: Defence

Crux of the matter

The release of Major General Justice Paul Brereton final, heavily-redacted report revealing Australian soldiers allegedly murdered 39 civilians in Afghanistan has been met with a variety of government, media and public responses, including calls for compensation and reform, a renewed push to drop prosecution against whistleblower David McBride, and even a detailed defence of Australia’s initial invasion of Afghanistan by Labor’s Deputy Leader, Richard Marles.

The report

Yesterday, Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell released a redacted, 465-page copy of the ‘Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force: Afghanistan Inquiry Report‘, the full version of which he received from IGADF JM Gaynor on November 6.

As The Mandarin reported, Campbell announced that Brereton found “credible information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 Australian Special Forces personnel, predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment”.

The report also discloses separate allegations that ADF members “cruelly treated” people who were under their control, and not classified as existing combatants, during periods of time outside “the heat of battle”.

Brereton was appointed an Assistant IGADF following a request by Campbell in 2016 to investigate “rumours of serious misconduct” and possible breaches of the Law of Armed Conflict by members of the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan over the period 2005 to 2016.

He investigated 57 allegations and made 143 recommendations in his report — including for the referral of 36 incidents to the Australian Federal Police and compensation of victims’ families — all of which have been accepted.

Today, The Mandarin explores key findings and some of the most significant, immediate responses to this historic report.

Summary of sections

The report is in three parts, with Part One, The Inquiry, dedicated to background and context. Sub-sections include: an unclassified introduction and executive summary; terms of reference; a chronology; a list of findings and recommendations; genesis and justification; legal issues; the rationale for recommendations; sample testing; a witness welfare support program; war crimes in Australian history; Afghanistan, Australia and Special Operations Task Group; the applicable law of armed combat; the applicable rules of engagement; and war crimes investigations of other nations in Afghanistan.

Part Two, Incidents and issues of interest, is the entirely redacted main body of the report, and examines specific incidents. Brereton notes in his letter to Gaynor that the six-volume section contains material “the publication of which at this stage could compromise potential criminal proceedings, as well as security classified information, and for that reason ought not be publicly released, at least until any such proceedings are finalised.”

Part Three, Strategic, operational, organisational and cultural issues, considers more systemic issues. Subsections include: strategic, operational, organisational and cultural factors; inquiries and oversight; and command and collective responsibility.

Each part also has some annexes. For example, Part Three’s Annex A is dedicated to the Whetham Report, which is a review into the leadership ethics of Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) by Professor David Whetham of King’s College London, Assistant Inspector-General of the ADF.

Summary of findings

Two of the more horrific systemic findings involved soldiers carrying “throwdowns” — foreign weapons or equipment such as pistols, small hand-held radios and grenades “to be placed with the bodies of ‘enemy killed in action’ for the purposes of site exploitation photography” — and being instructed to shoot a prisoner in order to achieve their first kill in what Campbell calls an “appalling practice known as ‘blooding’”.

There is also an entirely redacted allegation described as “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history”,  while military sociologist Dr Samantha Crompvoets — whose 2016 report into SASR and Special Operations Command, which was originally commissioned as an examination of inter-military relationships by Campbell, led directly to the inquiry — was told of an incident where:

members from the ‘SASR’ were driving along a road and saw two 14-year-old boys whom they decided might be Taliban sympathisers. They stopped, searched the boys and slit their throats. The rest of the Troop then had to ‘clean up the mess’, which involved bagging the bodies and throwing them into a nearby river. Dr Crompvoets says she was told this was not an isolated incident. In this context, Dr Crompvoets says she was told that Special Forces soldiers were committing unsanctioned killing in order to ‘get a name for themselves’ and to join the ‘in’ group.

The report also unpacks how a culture of cover-up and entitlement infected the special forces, while oversight systems failed through a combination of extreme loyalty, secrecy and that Australian national leadership “did not have the degree of command and control over Special Operations Task Group”, which was instead accountable to American-led operators in International Security Assistance Force Special Operations Command.

Additionally, the Whetham report touches on a phenomenon of “abandoned curiosity” from oversight measures, and concludes that “SOCOMD personnel during the period 2007 to 2014 draws a picture of gradual erosion of standards over time, resulting in a culture within which, ultimately, war crimes were tolerated.”

Source: ‘Special Operations Command: Leadership and Ethics Review’, David Whetham.

Major responses: Government and ADF

Last week, the government announced a new Office of the Special Investigator to investigate and prosecute matters raised in the inquiry. An independent oversight panel has also been established to provide oversight and assurance of Defence’s broader response to the inquiry relating to cultural, organisational and leadership changes.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds yesterday said in a statement that accountability would be the “cornerstone” of the department’s response to the report.

“This is crucial to maintaining the highest standards Australians expect of our military, reassuring confidence and trust, and learning from grave failings,” Reynolds said.

“I am profoundly conscious this process continues to be extremely challenging and distressing for many individuals and families impacted by the inquiry. Defence will keep working hard to make sure people get the right support when they need it. This is the government’s highest priority. I strongly encourage current and former serving ADF members and their families to reach out and seek the help they need.”

As the ABC reports, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani released a statement earlier yesterday saying Prime Minister Scott Morrison had called ahead of the report’s release to express “his deepest sorrow over the misconduct by some Australian troops”. While Morrison did not explicitly apologise, the statement notes that Payne did, in a message of her own, and that Ghani, “appreciated the direct contact, noted the many Australians who had served with distinction in Afghanistan and said he was counting on Australia’s justice system to follow up on these matters.”

Campbell, as The Guardian notes, issued an unreserved apology to the families of the dead. Defence is now exploring how it can arrange compensation to families and will begin a number of reforms, with the SASR’s second squadron to be disbanded and further changes to be monitored by the new oversight committee.

Additionally, the unit citation awarded to Special Operations Task Group rotations serving in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013 will be revoked.

Speaking to 7.30, Campbell conceded special forces may have committed more murders than discovered by the probe, and that some of the 25 soldiers are still serving in the ADF.

Calls to drop prosecution of David McBride

Brereton has also recommended that no legal action be taken against individuals who helped bring war crimes to light:

Perhaps the single most effective indication that there is a commitment to cultural reform is the demonstration that those who have been instrumental in the exposure of misconduct, or are known to have acted with propriety and probity, are regarded as role models.

It is crucial that their careers be seen to prosper. There are others whose conduct is such that they cannot be rewarded by promotion, but who, having made disclosures to the inquiry in protected circumstances when they reasonably believed they would not be used against them, and whose evidence was ultimately of considerable assistance to the inquiry, ought not fairly be the subject of adverse administrative action.

Now, The Canberra Times reports that the legal team for whistleblower David McBride call it “unfathomable” that the former military lawyer still faces the prospect of jail.

“Since 2014 David McBride was alerting Defence to the central matter that has now been highlighted by Justice Brereton – the culture of impunity that was created and overseen by army command,” McBride’s lawyer Mark Davis said. “He exposed this at great cost to his career and reputation, and is now facing a jail cell for doing what he saw as his proper duty.”

McBride has been charged with five offences, including theft of commonwealth property and the unauthorised disclosure of material to journalists after leaking documents about the killing of unarmed civilians to the ABC for the 2017 story, ‘The Afghan Files‘.

Following its controversial raid of the ABC last year, the Australian Federal Police last month decided not to charge journalist Dan Oakes over the publication of the material.

Now, Independent crossbench senator Rex Patrick has urged the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to drop charges against McBride, while Human Rights Watch Australian director Elaine Pearson noted McBride is the only person deployed to Afghanistan currently facing criminal charges.

Former senator Nick Xenophon, who is a partner for the law firm, Xenophon Davis, acting for McBride, earlier this week published a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald calling for Campbell to speak out on McBride’s behalf.

Campbell, for his part, would not comment on whether prosecution of McBride would be dropped.

“I can’t speak to issues that are at play in a current court process. I am just not in a position to do so. I understand your concern and I appreciate that many here will speak to that issue, but I am just not able to talk to it,” Campbell said.

A spokesman for Attorney-General Christian Porter said it was not appropriate for him to intervene, while another for the CDPP said it was not appropriate to comment as the matter is before the court.

Relief, sadness among victims and whistleblowers

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Abdul Latif, whose father Haji Sardar was allegedly executed by an SAS soldier in March 2012, welcomed the release of the report, calling it “a step towards justice.”

Additionally, a former human rights worker who tried to help families seek answers for dead sons in Uruzgan, Abdul Ghafar Stanikzai, has told The Guardian the news has restored some hope that Australian troops will be held accountable.

A small number of serving SASR soldiers also told the SMH — which has been essential in airing a number of allegations, namely against former special services corporal Ben Roberts-Smith — that while the report had taken a long time, they have greeted it with relief tainted with sadness.

“We were attacked at the time for speaking out, but what we have done has probably saved the regiment,” one SAS whistleblower said. Another notes that, “a small number of us did the right thing. We have had our careers stuffed ever since. But it was the right thing.”

The urge to defend

In one of the more surprising responses to the Brereton report, Deputy Labor Leader Richard Marles offered a detailed defence of not just the wider military but Australia’s initial presence in Afghanistan:

“It would be a tragedy if Australians were to see our nation’s involvement in Afghanistan solely through the prism of these allegations,” Marles said. “We should remember that when Australia first became involved in Afghanistan as part of an international force in the early 2000s, our objective was to deny Afghanistan as a base for international terrorism.”

Marles, who went on to note “Australians lost their lives on September 11” and that “the organisation which perpetrated the Bali bombings utilised training camps in Afghanistan,” acknowledges the findings in the report are “simply appalling” but spends roughly a third of his response justifying Australia’s involvement in the US-led invasion of the country.

The Monthly also notes that Campbell, who also defended the majority of Australian soldiers deployed overseas, was challenged at a press conference yesterday by SMH investigative journalist Chris Masters on what had been achieved in Afghanistan given the country is largely in ruin and negotiations are currently underway with the Taliban. To which Campbell replied:

“Chris, if I ask my people and our veterans, there is a great deal of pride in what was achieved, and I think it is important to think about this from the point of view of seeking to give the Afghani people … and the government of the day an opportunity to find their path forward, and that is what we did. I think that is a good and honourable thing. What they are now doing is entering into a process of negotiation to seek to end the wars that have ravaged their country for many, many years, and I wish them the very best in that process.”

Elsewhere, the AFR  reports that a spokesperson for Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes says that the SAS Resources Fund, which he helped established, may be used to support SASR members accused of war crimes, but noted Stokes does not currently control the fund.

Further reading

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14Open Arms Veterans & Families Counselling is on 1800 011 046, and the ADF All-hours Support Line is on 1800 628 036.

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