TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH TONY JONES, LATELINE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 8 FEBRUARY 2012
TOPICS: Security Vetting; Afghanistan; Leadership.
TONY JONES: Joining us from our Canberra bureau is the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith. Thanks for being there.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure, Tony.
TONY JONES: 20,000 security clearances being compromised by astonishing incompetence or worse, but the inquiry concludes that no-one's to blame. How can that be?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I'm not sure that's right. It's, I think a rigorous, some might say scathing assessment by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security.
TONY JONES: So who's to blame?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Defence generally, firstly.
Secondly, but the Inspector General in her report draws attention to a lack of oversight by responsible officers. She has some, I think, very prescient remarks to make about personal institutional accountability. The Secretary of Defence has made it clear to me that he has effected personnel changes, amongst a raft of changes to improve the rigour, improve the administration and to make sure that this doesn't happen again.
So there are a lot of lessons here and the Inspector General's report, I think, is a frank and very worthwhile report. We have accepted all of the recommendations.
Importantly, in September last year when a preliminary report was made by a Defence officer, which I made public and I think spoke to Lateline about, it was pretty clear that we were heading in this direction so a lot of the so-called remediation began from that point in time, so we haven't waited until the receipt of this final report.
TONY JONES: Yes, but no individual supervisor, manager or anyone up the chain is actually taking any blame for this apparently. I mean, perhaps people secretly have been moved sideways or something like that, but no-one's actually taking the blame for what appears to be a totally corrupt and immoral system.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I wouldn't use the phrase corrupt. Indeed the-
TONY JONES: Well corrupted, you could say that. I mean, this thing called the workaround: making up fake information to go in security assessments, fake information in security assessments and apparently everyone did it.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, the Inspector General makes it clear that she discerns no motivation on the part of anyone to adversely affect the system, so the use of the phrase corrupt is wrong.
TONY JONES: Corrupted.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I'm very pleased, Tony, that you've corrected yourself twice because that is a fair thing to say.
What occurred here was at the very beginning of a process, and I'm not defending it, it was wrong, it was maladministration.
I first became aware of it essentially on the publication of the view of the three contractors who appeared on your show in May of last year and in very short order we had both the Inspector General of Defence and then the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security on the case.
So I'm not defending any of the practices and nor should Defence and the new Secretary of the Department is not doing that.
But these data entries occurred at the very beginning of a process. I'm not defending that, but if you understand the security vetting process, despite the incorrect data entries, what then occurs for a security vetting is a range of checks - and the higher up the level you go the more exhaustive it becomes - police checks, record checks, interviews, psychological assessments and the like.
And what we have to make our priority now is two-fold. Firstly to make sure we fix up the maladministration and that is in hand, including making sure that officers who are responsible understand very severely their obligations.
But secondly, and from a national security point of view more importantly, going through, as quickly as we can, and that started in September, the very rigorous process of making sure that none of the data entry errors adversely affected an outcome. And so far we've gone through about 5,300 top level or high level security assessments, we've gone through 3,100, not one of those assessments would have changed as a result of the data entry. Now we have to complete that job.
TONY JONES: OK, I'll stop you there just because the figures obviously beg the question: 2,200 have not been gone through of those 5,300 high level security clearances, so what happens to those other 2,000-odd assessments?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as we speak, and since September of last year, Defence has been going painstakingly through the process together with ASIO of checking each of those individually.
Now, it's taken the system, if you like, about six months to go through about 3,000. Whilst to complete the job at all levels of security, Defence and the Inspector General estimate that may take 18 months to two years, there's a reasonable expectation that the top security, the highest security level, the ones we're most concerned about can be done in the course of the next six months or so.
So what we're doing is going through the remainder of those first. And so far there's been no adverse outcomes having checked 3,100. I hope that that is the outcome for the remainder. My own judgment is that there is a low risk of any changed outcome.
TONY JONES: Alright. There may be a low risk, but can you say with any assurance, can you actually provide any kind of guarantee that someone hasn't slipped through the net - a criminal or even someone with terrorist tendencies?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the only guarantee I can provide is that each of these which has been the subject of an incorrect data entry at the very beginning of the process, which has subsequently been the subject of further consideration and further assessment, whether that's a police check, a record check, an interview or a psychological assessment, that each and every one of the thousands that have been affected by incorrect data will be checked individually to make sure that there's no changed outcome as a result of that original error.
Now, my own judgment is in the high or the top security levels there is a low risk, but that is not a risk that we can either be complacent about or take for granted, and we simply have to go through security assessment by security assessment individually to ensure that each and every one of them are eliminated.
Now the only guarantee I can give you is of 3,100 checked, there would be no changed outcome in any of those and I hope that that is the outcome for all of them, and my own judgment is we're dealing here with a low risk, but it is a low risk which if it comes to pass there are high and adverse and serious consequences and that's why we're doing what we're doing.
TONY JONES: Yes, it is an extraordinary level of reassessment that you've got to go through, and yet as I said at the beginning, no-one appears to be taking any blame for this. And this is strange because the inquiry found the allegations of the Lateline whistleblowers were true.
Now one of them says she was told when critical information was unavailable, that is addresses, employment records, even birth certificates that she should, "Be creative." Now the question is: who was telling her to be creative? Who was telling these workers to fabricate information, and what's happened to them?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Tony, I'm not going to go through the names or the position of individual Commonwealth officers or public servants, but if you read the materials that I have made public today, not just the Inspector General's report, not just the letter from the Secretary of the Department of Defence to me - if you read those two reports you can see in the Inspector General's report named officers of whom she is critical, you can see in the letter of advice to me from the Secretary of the Department of Defence today giving me an update on implementation that personnel changes at executive level in this area have occurred.
Now I'm not going to name officers, but as I said earlier, we recently, for example, adopted the recommendations of the Black Review into personal institutional accountability.
What the Inspector General has to say about personal and institutional accountability in her report is very prescient. She says that senior officers not only have to report up to their senior officers, they have to look down and make sure that the advice they are receiving from further down the chain is verifiable and is based on firm and sound evidence and advice.
And in this instance that clearly did not occur, which is why when the contractors made the public statements that they have, my reaction was essentially: where there's smoke there's fire, which is why in less than a month after the matter came to attention on your show I had both the Inspector General of Defence and more importantly the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security on the case.
TONY JONES: OK. Will Defence apologise to these whistleblowers who evidently were totally correct in bringing this to the public?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well they already have. The Secretary of Defence wrote to them today. My understanding is he arranged for those apology letters to be delivered from the moment I got to my feet on the floor of the House of Representatives this evening. So, they are either delivered or in the post.
The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security's finding and recommendation that Defence should apologise was in my view absolutely correct and that's been done.
TONY JONES: OK. Let's move on to other matters. Is the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta trying to accelerate the timetable under which US Forces in Afghanistan cease combat roles?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, absolutely not.
TONY JONES: Because the New York Times clearly reported that he was and that he was accelerating the timetable for political reasons effectively so Barack Obama would have an applause line when it comes up to his election?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I know, Tony, perhaps for some it will be a novel experience to read something in a newspaper, even an august one like the New York Times that wasn't actually true.
But I was in Brussels last week for the NATO/ISAF - the International Security Assistance Force - meeting on Afghanistan. When I landed in Brussels, the first things I saw on my electronic gear were media reports to that effect.
Two things then occurred. I asked to see a transcript of the remarks he made and I read those and I then had a meeting with him and other Defence security officials where we had a conversation.
What Leon Panetta actually said, what defence ministers actually agreed upon and not for the first time, in effect was we are absolutely committed to transition, to Afghan-led security responsibility in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. That is not something that will occur on one day.
There are a five-plan series of provinces and districts to be transferred to Afghan responsibility. The fifth and final of those provinces to be transferred to Afghan-led responsibility, we believe, will occur around the middle of 2013. What will then occur is that International Security Assistance Forces will still be there.
The most common phrase I heard at the meetings I attended was "in together, out together". But International Security Assistance Forces and NATO forces will still be there lending assistance, being engaged in combat as required until transition occurs at the end of 2014.
TONY JONES: OK. Let's move if we can to politics here briefly. After the recent warnings from the crossbenchers, do you think there's any chance the Government could run its full term if Julia Gillard was toppled in a leadership coup?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've always been confident of a couple of things about this parliament and the next election. I've been confident that the next election would be held September, October, November of 2013, so I'm confident that this Parliament will go its full term.
And I've also been confident and remain confident that Julia Gillard will be Prime Minister to that election and will lead Labor to that election campaign. And I've also always been confident that at that election campaign we will be competitive because by that time the community will be engaged in the process of making comparisons and viewing the alternatives; Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.
TONY JONES: Do you accept that Kevin Rudd still has legitimate leadership ambitions?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, if you want to know the answer to that question, Tony, you need to get Kevin on your show, not me.
TONY JONES: Well, no, no, I'm asking you whether you would accept that those sort of ambitions from him, which he clearly has, are legitimate?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I haven't seen or heard those words come out of his mouth. Every time I've seen him appear on TV and he's asked questions along these lines he says what I say, which is he's very happy doing his job, he's very happy being Foreign Minister, and if I say so myself, he's making a reasonable fist of that, and the most recent joint exercise we did was the Australia-United Kingdom ministerial consultations in London.
TONY JONES: OK. Alright. But why then - if you seriously believe that, why then was it necessary for Simon Crean to go on the radio last week and refer to him as a prima donna who wasn't a team player when he was Prime Minister? Was that completely unprompted? I mean, was Simon Crean disciplined for that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, again, Tony, maybe you should get Simon on your show. It wasn't me who made those remarks. It was a general proposition.
TONY JONES: No, but you speak to your colleagues in the corridors; you must know why he said it.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's not actually a conversation I've had with Simon. But again, the line of questioning, Tony: I'm very happy to come on your show on a regular basis, which I do; I like your show very much, but you shouldn't put to me the internal thoughts or the actions of others. If you want to get the answers you're asking, go and ask them on TV.
TONY JONES: OK. Alright, let's go back to you then. You'd be aware of media reports suggesting that if Julia Gillard's leadership were to become untenable, you, Stephen Smith, would be a more acceptable alternative prime minister to Kevin Rudd. Your response to that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well from time to time I've seen a range of names mentioned in dispatches, and if from time to time I see my name, I regard that either as mischievous or flattery. I'm focused on one thing, and that's-
TONY JONES: Well, hang on, let's stick with the flattering aspect of it, because, I mean, do you hold any leadership - and you can give me a completely honest answer here because it doesn't have to be in this term - but do you hold any leadership ambitions at all yourself?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the ambition I've had is the same ambition I've always had - and I have to confess, from an early age, is to be a Cabinet member sitting around a Labor Cabinet doing good deeds and good works.
I'm focused on the job that I have to do. I'm very keenly focused on the national security interest that we have. I asked the Prime Minister if I could do the Defence job because I wanted to stay in the national security space and I enjoy doing that very much, and there's no shortage of challenges in the national security space, whether it's Defence capability of whether it's Afghanistan or whether it's Iran or the like. So, I'm focused on my job.
TONY JONES: So, I've just got to ask you this: does that mean you don't think you'd actually be capable of being Prime Minister?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think I'm capable of being Defence Minister and that's the job I'm currently doing and I haven't noted there is a vacancy for Prime Minister and I'm not trying to do anything to cause a vacancy for Prime Minister.
I think at the next election Julia Gillard will lead the Labor Party. I think that election will be a competition, I think we'll be competitive and I think by the time we get to that point in the cycle, people will be asking whether Tony Abbott really has the judgment to discharge the onerous responsibilities of Prime Minister, making the judgments about our economy, making the judgments about national security.
TONY JONES: Stephen Smith, good to see you. Thanks very much for coming on to join us tonight.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Tony. Thanks very much.