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Always check for secret documents before throwing away old furniture

How do nearly 5000 secret, confidential and restricted documents from two major federal departments end up in a scrap metal recycling yard?

That’s the question the Defence Security Authority was called on to answer, revealed in newly released documents from a series of investigations published on the department’s freedom of information disclosure log.

The DSA investigation found the documents had remained locked inside a “B class” security container until it was busted open by workers at Access Recycling in Fyshwick. The cache of documents — contained in 18 Defence folders and 20 corporate files from the then Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations — were spotted in the open container by a member of the Australian Defence Force Academy Postgraduates and Guard group, who was disposing of other assets.

The discovery was reported to the military police, who recovered the classified material, which included 2402 “restricted” documents, 224 classified as “confidential” and 1158 designated “secret”. There were also another 630 “secret” documents with the additional caveat Australian Government Access Only (AGAO) and 246 more for Australian eyes only (AUSTEO).

DSA’s Security Investigation Unit concluded the 11 and 12-year-old Defence folders were provided to DEEWR in 2002 to support “pay and specialist allowance remuneration proceedings” and as such, did not put the Defence Force at risk:

“The documents relate to trade structures and contain information that is unlikely to expose any current operational tactics, techniques or processes, as advised by Special Operations Headquarters and Defence People Group.”

But how did they end up there? Apparently, DEEWR sent the secure container to Pickles Auctions in March, 2013, without checking its contents. The container went to the scrap metal yard over a year later in October, 2014 and luckily remained locked until forced open by staff of the metal recycler.

According to DSA, the material was only exposed for 15 hours and since the scrap yard was locked from 6pm to 8am the next morning, and the container was out of public view, the risk of disclosure of any information contained therein was deemed to be “minimal”, in official DSA risk management parlance.

Department of Employment staff suggested it might have been thrown away after the machinery-of-government change that split the old DEEWR’s functions between the Education and Employment departments and the Australian Public Service Commission.

But the APSC told the Defence investigators it had not thrown away any such containers in the relevant time period, and the best scenario Employment could come up with was that it was probably part of a “bulk lot” DEEWR trashed in 2013.

DSA’s investigation found fault with the DEEWR staff who did not check the container before throwing it out, and that Defence People Group breached policy by failing to fill in the correct authorisation forms.

The DSA report noted that if not for the actions of the eagle-eyed Defence Force member who spotted the exposed material “a more serious security incident” could have occurred. As well as a review of workplace practices around managing classified material, the investigation unit recommended the person be formally recognised for their “security awareness” by their unit.

The FOI release also details investigations into a few honest mistakes with computer systems, and a member of the Navy in Darwin who took home pictures of a February 2013 operation involving a suspected illegal entry vessel — not to leak them to the media, just to show their friends.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.