TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH KIERAN GILBERT, SKY NEWS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 13 MARCH 2012
TOPICS: SAS; Kandahar incident; Kirkham.
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
KIERAN GILBERT: Foreign policy experts have raised questions about the SAS Squadron Four operating in Africa, doing the work of spies. What can you tell us about what their role is there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a number of things. Firstly, as you'd expect, I don't go into intelligence or operational matters, and I certainly don't go into the individual operational arrangements of the SAS.
But there are a number of things which I do need to say in response to the stories in today's Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
Firstly, the notion that the SAS or Australian Defence Force personnel are somehow operating at large in Africa is just wrong. And the suggestion that somehow what's occurring anywhere is at the boundaries of the law is also wrong.
Any Australian officer, whether it's a DFAT officer, whether it's a member of the SAS or Australian Defence Force personnel, has to and does operate consistently with Australian domestic law and with international law, whether that's the laws of armed conflict or international humanitarian law.
And whatever operations they are engaged in are effectively operations authorised either by the Minister for Defence or the National Security Committee of the Cabinet.
So somehow the suggestion that they're operating at large in Africa is not the case. People would expect that from time to time the SAS, ASIS and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are involved in making sure that Australians overseas are not at risk, whether that's a result of a consular crisis, a counterterrorism threat, or as a result of a kidnapping for example.
KIERAN GILBERT: But these SAS soldiers aren't carrying out espionage without legal cover, is that what you're saying?
STEPHEN SMITH: That's a very good question and it allows me to make this point, that whenever we have our people in the field, they have the proper and appropriate protections. So whether it's for example someone working for ASIS - the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, which is our overseas intelligence service - or someone operating for or working with the SAS, we ensure, firstly, that they operate in accordance with domestic and international law, but secondly they have appropriate and proper protection so far as their own conduct is concerned.
KIERAN GILBERT: So you're not saying that these activities aren't taking place, but what is taking place is happening with appropriate legal protection?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, again, I'll fall back on the traditional age old longstanding practice that I don't have a conversation in public about intelligence matters. I don't have a conversation in public about particular operations and that's because we don't want to put at risk the operation or our national security interests.
But the suggestion that somehow the SAS is operating at large in Africa is wrong. Wherever the SAS operate they operate in accordance with Australian law, international law, and they're properly authorised.
KIERAN GILBERT: Squadron Four’s existence has never been confirmed.
STEPHEN SMITH: As I said earlier, I'm not proposing to have a public conversation about the operational status or the make-up of the SAS.
KIERAN GILBERT: But we normally know most of our Regiments and Squadrons, the existence of them at least. But this has not even been confirmed, the existence of this squadron.
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not going to have a public conversation about the deployment, the make-up, or the operational-
KIERAN GILBERT: Or even existence of it.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm not going to have a public conversation about the SAS in that context.
KIERAN GILBERT: Let's look at the rampage in Kandahar. That was shocking at so many levels but it undermines the whole ISAF mission, doesn't it?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's a very bad setback, there's no point not fronting that head-on. It's a terrible, tragic incident.
I'm pleased that the United States have expressed their condolences quickly and at the highest level. I'm pleased they've indicated there will be a full and an exhaustive inquiry.
But there's no doubt that following on from the recent Koran burning terrible incident as well, that this is a setback and we have to acknowledge it as a setback.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. And finally I need to ask you about your relationship with the top brass. David Hurley says he's got a professional and constructive relationship with you. But of course he would say that, wouldn't he. The other generals that are retired - Generals Molan, Leahy, Cantwell - Cantwell says that you don't have respect for Australian soldiers.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, let me deal with Major-General Cantwell's remarks.
Firstly, when I saw those remarks I was surprised, I was disappointed and also saddened by them. His remarks are effectively wrong and unfair in the way in which they portray my view of Australian troops in the field. I've been to Afghanistan on at least four occasions and I've never seen such a suggestion.
So I was surprised by them, disappointed by them, and saddened by them. And he also has a reference to one of my predecessor Joel Fitzgibbon, and Mr Fitzgibbon has been quite robust about his analysis of the article.
But I've been making the point for the last week or so that the relationship I have with the Chief of the Defence Force, the Vice Chief, the Service Chiefs and the Secretary is a very good one. And you can't ascribe to them a relationship with me by listening to commentators or the Liberal Party or Liberal Party advisers-
KIERAN GILBERT: What about recent Generals though?
STEPHEN SMITH: Or former officials-
KIERAN GILBERT: -But why do they have that view then?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, because we are engaged in a number of things. We're engaged in a big reform program. That's the first one.
KIERAN GILBERT: Is it because you're taking the military on? Is that why?
STEPHEN SMITH: Because we are engaged in a reform program. The Secretary of the Department, the Chief of the Defence Force and I are at one in driving cultural change and in a big reform program.
And as I said in recent days, I make no apology for having as top of my mind the interests of a vulnerable 18 year old woman when she was in distress. I make no apology for again saying that it's wrong in principle to bring into play the character of a young woman when she is the potential innocent victim of an alleged serious sexual abuse.
Now, other people might take a different view but I won't resile from that.
But we're in the midst of a big reform program, making the budget better, getting capability right.
And in terms of respect and regard for the troops, the most important thing to reflect respect and regard for the troops is making sure they've got the gear and the equipment that they need to take up the fight, whether it's Afghanistan, whether it's peace and security in East Timor, or the Solomon Islands.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.
NEWSREADER: Stephen Smith speaking with Kieran Gilbert.