TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH LYNDAL CURTIS, ABC 24
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 9 FEBRUARY 2012
TOPICS: Iraq; HMAS Success; Afghanistan.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to News 24.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We'll come to the Success report and your Afghanistan update in a moment, but there are claims today Australian SAS troops in the Iraq war played a role in potentially illegally detention of Iraqi prisoners of war, and The Guardian says it has a US military document that an SAS squadron was integral to the operations of a secret facility, a so-called black site thought to be a secret prison used for interrogation.
Do you have any knowledge of a role that the SAS might have played?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly I've got no knowledge of these matters at all. These were matters before the government was elected so they were matters during the period of the previous government, so really if people want to pursue it they've got to speak to Ministers in the previous government, but having said that there are a number of points I think that generally need to be made.
Firstly, historically, successive Australian governments and the ADF have prided ourselves on the fact that we have very high standards in this area. In Iraq we were not a detaining authority. And the advice I've got this morning is essentially that these allegations are baseless and there's nothing in it.
It's also I think important to bear in mind that when allegations about comparable matters were made during the period of the previous government, there were exhaustive analysis through a range of Senate inquiries and Senate hearings. The ADF essentially went through all of its materials with an eye to, ‘was Australia exposed to any of these criticisms or allegations any way?’ And the answer was no.
So the advice I've got is there's nothing in it, but it's not something that I would either appropriately or normally have access to in terms of the raw data or the raw materials.
LYNDAL CURTIS: You say it was a time when the Coalition Government is in power but the Defence Department hasn't changed. Is it not worth a look back again just to check that Australian forces in Iraq did maintain standards of international and Australian law.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well again, the advice I've got this morning from Defence is that there is nothing in these allegations, that the allegations are baseless, and that for example the suggestion that the SAS was involved, this was the area that is being described was not part of the SAS's area of operation. So a general - as a number of general responses, firstly, we were not a detaining authority and so we didn't have responsibility for detainee management, unlike circumstances in Afghanistan today which is why we are being so careful about those details.
But secondly it wasn't within the SAS's area of operation. And the advice I've got is to put it bluntly that there is nothing in these allegations. More importantly, in the course of the previous government's time, in the course of the Iraq conflict and the aftermath, the ADF as a result of a range of Senate inquiries went through all of its materials searching for evidence or examples or evidence of difficulty.
And none was found.
If people want to pursue this then they are pursuing historical events. Yes, the ADF continues as an organisation; and the advice I've got today is that there is nothing in these allegations.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we could go to the third report into HMAS Success, this report looks more broadly at the role of the chain of command and investigation. It says the centre of gravity needs to return to the chain of command when it comes to reporting and managing unacceptable behaviour.
Is it worrying to you that there is a suggestion that this report looks at that what it calls the civilianisation of the military has gone too far, and that morale needs to be restored to line commanders?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well a number of things. It's the third and final part of Commissioner Gyles' report. This one deals with more general issues, the relationship or interrelationship between military justice and command, redressing grievance procedures, the so-called equity and diversity approaches.
It is a very helpful report in terms of its timeliness.
We've previously established a review by the Inspector General of Defence to look at the relationship between civilian law and military law and how that can sometimes cause problems. So we will have a-
LYNDAL CURTIS: Does this report suggest that it is causing problems; that problems do exist.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think that this report makes the suggestion that having made changes in the past to the relationship between military justice and command decisions it's probably time to have a look at that to make sure that lines of chains of command haven't been unduly interfered with, that military justice has been working efficiently and smoothly, and that we don't allow things like the equity and diversity process to get in the way of either the command structure, or the military justice system.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Is it possible to achieve a perfect balance between what may be the responsibilities in civilian courts for people to have rights for - to have procedural fairness and the chain of command which is almost quite a different system?
STEPHEN SMITH: That's true. I think one of the issues we've got to look at is invariably to use the old expression swift justice is invariably good justice. In other words if these issues can be resolved more quickly then that's much better than allowing a long lag time.
Often what we find in the inter-relationship between the civilian system and the military system is that things are put on hold while civilian courts come to a conclusion. And so there is a long lag time whereas often it's better to get things resolved speedily, but you also need to ensure they're resolved fairly.
The Chief of the Defence Force and I have had a number of discussions about all of these inter-relationships and one of the if you like, anecdotal conclusions we've come to is that when we get ourselves into trouble when there's delays or when there's controversy is seen variably result of decisions that are made up front or early.
And so one of the things we need to have a very careful look at is; what are the decisions that are made, up-front, either by the line of command or by the military justice system, which subsequently see unnecessary delays or unnecessary angst.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Finally Minister, you gave an update on Afghanistan. You made it clear that planning for the post-2014 activities in Afghanistan is ongoing but you also said the Taliban's coming under substantial military pressure and we need to continue to push them to a point where they know they cannot win and that's to get parties closer to a political settlement. If that pressure does not work for a political settlement is planning for post-2014 affectively redundant because Afghanistan could be left in a situation where there's effectively civil war?
STEPHEN SMITH: They're all interrelated. We strongly believe that Afghanistan can only be resolved in the long term by a political solution as well as a military solution. We've got to bring security control; we've got to ensure that the Afghan National Security Forces can be responsible for a stable and secure Afghanistan.
But equally if there can be a political settlement which is done directly between the Afghan government with those insurgents who are happy to lay down their arms and abide by the Afghan constitution then there's a chance of long term enduring stability.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And that will be better done before 2014?
STEPHEN SMITH: In an ideal sense yes and you've seen the early signs of such discussions. But importantly there will be a need in my view and Australia's view for there to be a post-2014 transition international community presence giving military advice, training and potentially Special Forces either for counter-terrorism purposes or for giving advice to Afghan Special Forces.
So the key thrust of the Brussels meeting last week was we've got to keep on track for transition which we believe we are but we do need to now start looking at what will be the post-2014 international community presence in Afghanistan to make sure that there's stability after 2014.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And if there is no political settlement before 2014 does that mean what you do after 2014 may involve more resources than otherwise?
STEPHEN SMITH: Not necessarily. We're building up the Afghan National Security forces. The Afghan National Security Force will be somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000. That's a significant force. We're training it up, we're mentoring it to put it in a position of being responsible for - lead responsibility for Afghan security.
It will continue in its development to need in our view assistance by way from this national community of advisors, of trainers, niche or specialised or high level area but it may well also need ongoing assistance so far as special forces are concerned, potentially for training but also possibly for operations themselves.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith thank you very much for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.