Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TOPICS: Australia’s framework for detainee management in Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, WikiLeaks, Defence procurement, Defence Budget and US Global Force Posture Review
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turning up. I wanted today to announce the arrangements that the Australian Government has put in place so far as detainee management in Afghanistan is concerned. And I'm making this announcement because I think this is an important area where Australia and the Australian Government and the Australian authorities need to be as transparent as we can in terms of the treatment of Afghans who are detained as a result of the actions of Australian forces in Afghanistan.
The starting point for the announcement is you'd recall that on 1 August this year the Dutch effectively left Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan.
Up until that time under our partnership with the Dutch, the Dutch had been responsible for detainee management. With the departure of the Dutch, new arrangements have been put in place.
Since 1 August we've had interim arrangements in place both with the Afghan authorities and with the United States. And those interim arrangements I am today confirming. The arrangements are put in place as a result of consideration by the Government at the National Security Committee, and as a result of arrangements put in place and formalised recently with both Afghan authorities and the United States.
Some of the detail of those arrangements are, of course, necessarily confidential and there'll be some areas of those arrangements that I don't propose to talk about in the public domain.
Can I firstly make a general point. It is, of course, important that Australian forces operating in Afghanistan are in a position to detain potential insurgents. This is to remove potential insurgents from the battlefield.
But it's also important that the way in which our detainee management arrangements work are consistent with our domestic and international legal obligations, are consistent, for example, with the requirements placed on us and other nations under the various Geneva conventions, and to meet the higher standards which Australia has always set for itself in these areas.
So far as the arrangements are concerned generally, some of you would be aware because some of you have been to the facility that, as a result of the departure of the Dutch we have established as a temporary holding facility in Tarin Kowt to do the initial screening of detainees.
The facility caters for between 35, on a normal basis, 70 at a surge basis, between 35 and 70 detainees. And detainees are processed in that facility over a 96 hour period. That period can be extended for medical or logistical reasons.
That facility is staffed by experienced military police, and it is also the case that individual observation and video camera observation ensure that at every point in the cycle, care can be taken to ensure the safety and welfare of those persons detained there.
Once initial screening is effected, the detainees will be transferred either to the Afghan authorities, to the Afghan national security detention centre in Tarin Kowt, or to the United States who has a detention facility in Parwan Province. The lower risk detainees will be transferred to the Afghan authorities in Tarin Kowt, and the higher risk detainees transferred to the United States authorities in Parwan Province near Kabul.
We've put in place arrangements to ensure that Australian officials are in a position to monitor the detainees, either in the Afghan Tarin Kowt facility or in the United States facility in Parwan. Officials both from Defence and from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will be able to monitor the ongoing treatment of those Afghans detained in either Tarin Kowt in the Afghan centre, or in Parwan Province. And we believe the combination of our monitoring arrangements and the agreements that we've struck with the Afghan authorities and the United States authorities will go a long way to ensuring the proper treatment of detainees in these arrangements.
If suggestions or allegations of ill-treatment are made against Australian officers or Australian officials or Australian Defence Forces either in the course of detaining Afghans or in the screening facility in Tarin Kowt, they are immediately investigated by the Australian Defence Force Investigative Service.
To date since 1 August, some seven complaints from five individuals have been made. They have been exhaustively investigated and determined to be without foundation.
It has not been the practice in the past of detailing the number of detainees that Australian forces detain, but I'm proposing today to indicate the number of detainees since 1 August, and to make the number of detainees a regular feature of my reporting on Afghanistan which my predecessor and I have undertaken to do so far as the conflict in Afghanistan generally is concerned.
Between 1 August and 12 December this year, Australian forces in Afghanistan have apprehended 348 detainees. Of these, 64 have been transferred to the Afghan or US authorities, to the facilities that I have referred to, and the remainder have been released following initial screening. So those arrangements are detailed in the materials that have been made available to you.
They endeavour to meet two objectives - to firstly ensure that a detention management arrangement system is in place which enables Australian forces to take insurgents or potential insurgents out of the battlefield, and secondly, to ensure that Australia meets and discharges both its domestic and international legal obligations to people who are detained in the course of armed conflict. And the arrangements we've entered into, we believe, will go a long way towards safeguarding those requirements.
I'm very happy to respond to questions on that matter, but before I do can I just indicate how saddened I was to hear the news about Ambassador Holbrooke, about Richard Holbrooke, the United States Envoy to Afghanistan and to Pakistan.
US officials have in the last hour or so confirmed his very sad death. I worked closely with him in respect of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was a first-class United States official. He was highly regarded by his Foreign Ministerial and Defence Ministerial colleagues. Very highly regarded by the Afghanistan and Pakistan Envoys, including our own, Ric Smith, and was a person who was a great friend of Australia and understood the nature of the Australia-US relationship, and understood Australia's role and place in the world.
So I extend our condolences to his family and his friends, and also to our United States colleague. He was a tower of United States diplomacy and he'll be sadly missed by all of his friends and colleagues.
I'm happy to respond to questions on the detainee management arrangements or other matters.
QUESTION: Mr Smith, in the monitoring of the progress of detainees who've been handed over to the Afghan or American authorities, have any issues arisen that have been of concern to our personnel in terms of the handling or the treatment of those people?
STEPHEN SMITH: Not on my advice to this stage. Firstly the Monitoring Teams as we call them are comprised of both Defence and DFAT officials.
They, as a result of the arrangements we've entered into with United States and Afghan authorities, have access to detainees both in the Afghan security detention facility in Tarin Kowt and also the United States facility in Parwan Province. If any suggestions of ill treatment were brought to attention, we would obviously have cause to raise those with either the Afghan or US authorities or ISAF generally and effect an investigation in our own right so far as those matters were concerned.
QUESTION: Does that mean that they remain Australia's responsibility throughout no matter who's holding them?
STEPHEN SMITH: What we wanted to do was to seek to discharge our obligation to the Australian Defence Force's longstanding professional standards in this area, but also to our own view of Australia's not just legal obligation but also our moral obligation. So we didn't believe it was sufficient to simply hand over, which is why we have crafted with both the Afghan authorities and the United States authorities a capacity to monitor the ongoing treatment of detainees at both the facilities I've referred to.
QUESTION: So who has jurisdiction over them?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in effect, once they are handed over, they are within the jurisdiction of either the Afghan authorities or the United States authorities but we have access to them.
QUESTION: Are there any circumstances in which those people could be put to death?
STEPHEN SMITH: The United States, as you know, has a policy of capital punishment. This is an area where I'm not able to go into detail, but as a result of the arrangements and agreements we've entered into, we believe that we have effected sufficient safeguards to have the effect that capital punishment would not be a realistic prospect for any of the detainees that we handed over.
QUESTION: And the Afghans? Sorry, you said the Americans, hand them over to the Americans…
STEPHEN SMITH: Similar outcome so far as the Afghans are concerned.
QUESTION: The US has had to be struggling to maintain its massive commitment to detainees, so are these measures a result of specific pressure from the US?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, these measures are a direct result of changed circumstances in Afghanistan, in particular in Uruzgan Province. When we were in partnership with the Dutch up until the end of July of this year, the Dutch took responsibility for detainee management and we were very pleased with that arrangement and very happy with that.
With the departure of the Dutch from Uruzgan Province effective from 1 August, we had to put in place other arrangements. Uruzgan Province is now effectively under the leadership of what we describe as Combined Team Uruzgan, which is Australia, the United States and other ISAF countries.
So we had to effect new arrangements. We've had interim arrangements in place since 1 August which were the result of discussions between Australian officials, Afghan officials and United States officials. Those arrangements have now been confirmed and the subject of agreements between the three countries concerned.
QUESTION: Minister, with Australian soldiers still detaining suspected Taliban terrorists, does our Immigration Department and the people responsible for our refugee policy, do they in any way ask for an assessment from Defence on just how safe it is to send people who've fled Afghanistan back there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Those two issues are - and I've made this point before - entirely separate. It's entirely different analysis in terms of conditions on the ground in Afghanistan as a result of the conflict with the Taliban and whether a person may have a legitimate claim under the Refugee Convention for seeking refuge in Australia as a result of the Refugee Convention.
The test of the Refugee Convention is whether one has a well grounded fear of persecution. It's a qualitatively and entirely different test from what circumstances might be on the ground so far as a conflict zone in Afghanistan is concerned.
QUESTION: Minister, some soldiers on the ground have expressed concern that 96 hours isn't long enough. The vast majority of these detainees have just been released even though they're pretty confident that they may have done something. Did you consider extending the 96 hour period?
STEPHEN SMITH: Not for the purposes of this exercise, but that is an issue which the Government has in hand. I think in terms of the 96 hours, which is effectively the ISAF standard, that 96 hours can be extended for medical or other logistical reasons. But you might recall that when I was last in Afghanistan, when the Prime Minister was last in Afghanistan, and when the Leader of the Opposition was last in Afghanistan, this issue was raised. Indeed, from memory, the Leader of the Opposition referred to it in his parliamentary contribution.
There are two aspects to the 96 hours - one is the question of whether that is a sufficiently lengthy enough period for resources to be allocated to do the screening, and secondly, whether we should move into an area which we have not previously occupied, which is to move to interrogation.
That is an issue which the Government has in hand. It is being given consideration to at the moment and is a matter that I will consider at Ministerial level in the course of the first quarter of next year.
QUESTION: So what does that involve, interrogation?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's not interrogation. Currently there is an initial screening to make a judgment about whether there is any evidence to hand over to United States or Afghan authorities for the purposes of detention and prosecution, or whether the initial screening indicates that there's no cause for ongoing concern and the person who's been initially detained can be released back into the community.
QUESTION: Has anyone actually turned up twice in that process? If they did turn up twice, is that likely to see them added to the…
STEPHEN SMITH: I'll take that one on notice. My memory - in this area I wouldn't rely entirely upon my memory - my memory is that in a small number of circumstances, people have been detained on more than one occasion, but I'll take it on notice and will provide the detail to you.
QUESTION: If they're not interrogated, what do we actually do with them?
STEPHEN SMITH: It was an initial screening to make a judgment as to whether there is evidence which should be provided either to the Afghan authorities or the US authorities for the purposes of ongoing detention and prosecution under Afghan law for insurgent or criminal activity.
QUESTION: That's not interrogation then?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. There is an initial, an initial screening which is done by ADF personnel.
QUESTION: I wonder if you could clarify what you said about capital punishment. Did Australia seek assurances from the US that none of the people it hands over would…
STEPHEN SMITH: As I said, there are some parts of the agreements that we have both with the Afghan authorities and the US authorities that I'm not at liberty to go to in terms of detail. We believe there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that capital punishment would not be an issue for any detainee that we hand over either to Afghan or United States authorities.
QUESTION: What do they get? Life imprisonment, do they?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's a matter for Afghan law.
QUESTION: We are at war in Afghanistan, so shouldn't we be interrogating people that we take as…
STEPHEN SMITH: To date our practice has been to do the initial screening and then hand over the interrogation process to United States authorities or to Afghan authorities. For what are described as high risk level detainees that's done by the United States; for lower level or less risk detainees it's done by Afghan authorities.
This is not a process that in the past we have engaged in or effected. The suggestion has been made, and we are giving consideration to that suggestion at two levels, that firstly 96 hours is not a sufficient time to do the initial screening, but secondly and separately, whether Australian officials, ADF personnel, should engage in interrogation.
Now, I'm very happy to say that my starting point is that the status quo should continue, but because the issue has been raised, we're giving it serious consideration at Government level and I'll give it consideration at Ministerial level I expect in the first quarter of next year.
QUESTION: And Mr Smith, is this our responsibility until whenever time that we withdraw?
STEPHEN SMITH: This is the framework that we put in place. They substantially, if not identically, mirror the interim arrangements that we put in place. They are now backed up by a formal decision of the National Security Committee of the Cabinet but also backed up by arrangements or Memorandums of Understanding between Australia and Afghanistan and Australia and the United States.
Because we want to discharge our obligation on the two levels that I've referred to to ensure that we discharge our international and domestic legal obligations but also to ensure that we take people out of the battleground, we will, of course, monitor how this is effected in practice, and if we need to make any changes, we will. And I would propose to make any such changes public.
QUESTION: I've got two simple questions, Minister. One is, will the Government's consideration of this question include [indistinct] if we ask young Australians to risk their lives capturing people only to release them three days later, and among the troops it's known as a catch and collect and let go policy.
And also will the Government's consideration of interrogation policy, and I speak here as the author of the ADF's interrogation policy, fix the morale problem we have in Afghanistan among the interrogators where they're not allowed to interrogate. It's like having a hospital full of surgeons not allowed to conduct operations, and there's obviously an operation security aspect to ineffective intelligence collection off the people we capture?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I wouldn't agree with the characterisation in the way in which you framed your question. But if we weren't serious about discharging our obligation to the Australian national interest, to the Australian people, to the Australian people, to the Australian Defence Force personnel, then I wouldn't be standing here making this announcement. That's the first point.
Secondly, interrogation has been raised as an issue which is why we are giving it across Government consideration and that will be for Ministerial consideration, as I've said, in the first quarter of next year.
Alright other questions?
QUESTION: Mr Smith what's the Government going to do to advance Mr Rudd's request for Israel to open up its nuclear facilities for international verification. Has there been any response from Israel so far to…
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's really a matter you should direct to the Foreign Minister. Of course I'm aware of the meetings that he's had and the statements that he's made. He's articulated the Australian Government's position so far as those two issues are concerned, but I'll leave him to make public what response, if any, he's received from Israeli officials.
QUESTION: Mr Smith the Americans reported a Treasury official as very critical of the Defence Department's finances. Firstly is it appropriate that a Treasury official makes comments to another Government about another department, but secondly, more importantly, are you satisfied that the Defence Department is now on top of financial administration?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly I've been invited in the past, and I'm not proposing to deviate from my practise to date, which is not proposing to be drawn on suggestions I see in newspapers about suggestions that may or may not be in individual United States cables. That's the first point.
Secondly I would have thought that from reading the newspapers in the last couple of weeks or so or just from general experience, generally as a matter of course Australian officials do speak to their counterparts from other countries.
Let me now go to the substance, but preface it slightly by saying just because a newspaper reports what may or not be in a cable doesn't, of course, mean that it's an accurate assessment. Cables are bit like newspapers, sometimes there's gossip and sometimes there's serious analysis, so you need to make that judgement.
But I've often made the point that a particular comment in a particular cable pinprick of a particular issue is not necessarily something that should be relied upon advisedly by all concerned.
Let me come to the substance. We have a very big job and a very big challenge so far as Defence finances, Defence procurement and Defence capability is concerned.
One of my predecessors, Joel Fitzgibbon, did a very good job in, for the first time in the modern era, trying to put Defence in a framework of rigour, and that was effected through the White Paper where we saw with the Force 2030 arrangements, through the Strategic Reform Program and also through the budget rules which effectively sees Defence with a capped budget, but over the years variously a real increase of two to three percent.
So for the first time we've seen those parameters around the Defence budget and the Defence capability effort. That's the first point.
Second point, we have regrettably in the past in Australia had very bad experiences when it has come to major Defence capability projects. And when we came to office one of the things we moved to do very quickly was, for example, to effect the Projects of Concern list, to enhance the first pass and second pass measures, to adopt recommendations that we saw either in the Mortimer or the Kinnaird Reports.
But I've made it clear, very clear recently that much more effort is required on this front. And recently when I spoke to the Defence leadership group a couple of weeks ago I made the point that a much greater effort is required from Defence to meet these challenges.
The third general point I'd make is that any major procurement problem is a high risk challenge. It is dealing invariably with fast moving or fast paced technological change, so there are always challenges in Defence procurement issues, but I think that Defence, the Australian Government and Australia can do much better. And this is very much a strong focus, not just of mine but of the Minister for Defence Materiel Jason Clare.
We have made changes, we have made improvements, but we have a long way to go and we face very significant challenges, very significant challenges of meeting the Strategic Reform Program, very significant challenges in meeting the capability projects laid out in the White Paper and in Force 2030.
QUESTION: Have the Americans raised with you how Australia will pay for the big ticket items in the Budget, in the White Paper?
STEPHEN SMITH: I haven't had raised with me by American officials any of these matters, sorry, other than a general conversation with Secretary Gates where he and I spoke about the difficulties and the challenges in this area.
We are not orphans here. You've seen in recent times the challenges that Secretary Gates has, you've seen in recent times the challenges that the United Kingdom Government has, that my colleague the Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox has. So we are not unique here.
We all, in comparable jurisdictions, have these challenges of managing Defence budgets, getting good value for money out of procurement projects and we face very much the same challenges that comparable jurisdictions do, whether it's the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and the like.
QUESTION: Minister Chris Bowen's over in Geneva at the moment apparently close to signing a deal to allow failed asylum seekers to be returned to Afghanistan. What are you able to tell us about that and how effective a deterrent you think such a deal would be?
STEPHEN SMITH: I can tell you that that's clearly a matter for the Minister for Immigration, and I'm sure if he has any announcements to make he'll make them in due course.
But as a general proposition, of course, when someone is unsuccessful in an application for refugee status we would want them to be voluntarily returned to their country of origin. Where that is not possible it is invariably the case that a formal returns agreement between Australia and another country, Afghanistan is the example you've mentioned, is a good basis to proceed. The Minister of Immigration has made that clear. It's a sensible approach. But any more detailed matters are, of course, a matter for him.
QUESTION: Minister, going to the substance of the issue that was raised before. Can we afford to pay for the military hardware we have on order?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we can't afford not to. I mean, people should understand what the current Government is effecting. Through the White Paper in 2009, through the so-called Force 2030 arrangements and through the Strategic Reform Program we are seeking to reinvest into Defence procurement and capability $20 billion worth of efficiency savings. That's what we're trying to do to give our Defence forces and our Defence Force personnel the equipment that they need for the future.
But we're talking here decades in timelines, and one of the things that I have been very strong on is we need to make sure as we make these decisions that we get the basis and the fundamentals of the decision right in the first instance. Any decision that we make about capability or procurement in 2010 which contains an error, the error will be magnified many times in 2020 and 2030.
So we have for the first time, either through the White Paper, through the Defence Capability Program, tried to lay out as transparently as we can the projects in train, the issues and the challenges that we have, and those challenges are always significant.
But what we want to do is to put ourselves in a much better position than in previous years where, for example, we saw billions of dollars wasted on Sea Sprite helicopters. Recently you might recall that I listed the JASSM Missile Project as a Project of Concern because I was not satisfied with the way in which Defence had kept the Government fully informed of the challenges in that project.
Defence has to get better, and industry needs to work closely with Defence in these challenges. But we can no longer proceed on the basis, as people did in the past, that there was a blank cheque for Defence projects, and we weren't conscious of value for money or value for effort.
QUESTION: Minister, last week the Shadow Minister for Defence claimed that the Defence Capability Program had fallen so far [indistinct] 18 months [indistinct] needed to be completely overhauled and pushed out for a 10 year period.
That seems to have a direct bearing on what we're discussing here today. [Indistinct] Department have any plans in that direction?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly I wouldn't take out the characterisation or the pejorative characterisation, as the Shadow Minister does, but he's the Shadow Minister. He would do that, wouldn't he? That's the first point.
Secondly, with a bit of luck in the course of the working days between now and Christmas, I will be in a position together with the Minister for Defence Materiel Jason Clare to publish the update of the Defence Capability Program. That will give a good indication as to where we are so far as about 150 projects are concerned. So I'm hoping to publish that for the benefit of industry in the forthcoming period between now and Christmas.
Recently another area where Defence and the Government want maximum transparency, you would have seen the publication of the audit office list of major projects, and next year we will add to the number of projects, we'll get close next year to examining 30 of the major projects.
We want to do this because, as I've put it, these issues are always challenging. We want to be as transparent as we can. But we also want to be as rigorous as we can. And if I was the Shadow Minister for Defence, I wouldn't necessarily be leading with my chin in these areas because there are a whole range of sorry stories in the past which I could refer to if I thought it was in our interest.
QUESTION: … [inaudible] asked if you had any security concerns on the basis of the WikiLeaks cables, anything in terms of security?
STEPHEN SMITH: Look, I've made the general point that I think this is, we're witnessing something which is very unfortunate because it does potentially put our national security interests at risks, or it puts the safety and welfare of individuals at risk, or in the Iraq or Afghanistan context, it puts operational security at risk.
There is probably less chance in this area in terms of operational security because you're dealing with essentially diplomacy and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade rather than primarily dealing with Defence, which was the first two areas of WikiLeaks cables. They were very much in my immediate patch, both in the Iraq context and Afghanistan context.
On Afghanistan the Defence Task Force went through all of those cables and came to the conclusion which was subsequently made public by me and by the Department that fortunately we didn't think any damage had been done to our national interest.
We are not too far away from me being in a position to indicate publicly the outcome of the Defence Task Force investigation into cables relating to Iraq. The preliminary advice - which I made public - was that nothing was there which would cause any national interest or security interest to be prejudiced. And the most recent advice I have is very strongly of that view. So I hope again in the working days between now and Christmas to be able to finalise that matter and hopefully I'll be in a position, as will Defence, to confirm that there was no prejudice to our national interest.
But that's not to say that that in any way devalues or undermines the argument that what you're dealing with here are national security interests.
It is not in Australia's interest, or in the international community's interests for these matters to be trailed through publicly.
Now other people may well have a different view. If you are a newspaper editor or a journalist you may well have a different view, but my starting point is we always need to be very conscious about prejudicing our national and national security interests when these things are made public.
And the starting point of WikiLeaks being made public is, of course, an unauthorised access to and disclosure of confidential US information.
QUESTION: Mr Smith, Secretary Gates has indicated that there does not appear to be any direct threat to American security as a consequence of the WikiLeaks revelations. NATO has indicated that it doesn't appear to have been set at any strategic disadvantage or any personnel endangered by it. And you've just indicated that our security has not been threatened by it. In that case, what has Mr Assange done that is so wrong in actually releasing this material?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well first point, I hope that Secretary Gates' disposition is ultimately proved to be correct, just as I hope my disposition is ultimately proved to be correct.
It's the risk. We have been very fortunate that the disclosure of cables with respect to Afghanistan have in our view not prejudiced our national security interest. I'm hopeful we will come to a final conclusion about that so far as the Iraq cables are concerned, and that is very much the preliminary advice to me and the current advice. And I hope to be able to confirm that in the very near future.
QUESTION: Do you hope that one of the lessons of this is that your colleagues and Government officials should be more circumspect when dealing with foreign officials?
STEPHEN SMITH: Again, I think that of itself would be regrettable. You know, one of the bases of the discourse between nations is that frank and robust exchanges can take place because they are, to date, generally being regarded as confidential. There's nothing wrong with having a frank and robust debate with a counterpart. Often that is a good thing.
But it has been the nature of diplomacy, both Australian diplomacy and elsewhere, that these conversations are confidential for all of the obvious reasons.
QUESTION: Minister, reforms of our Treasury laws in 2002 rightly and finally made it illegal for anyone to intentionally assist an enemy the ADF is fighting. Is the Government then willing to have another look at that legislation and to possibly outlaw reckless assistance for the enemy?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I wouldn't be proposing to do that of my own volition.
QUESTION: Minister, out of AUSMIN there was a team of American officials, Defence officials due in Australia I think this week to work out arrangements for the greater access to our bases by American Defence personnel. Can you give us any idea what's been happening there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Sure. As you'd recall from AUSMIN, Secretary Gates and I agreed that we would establish a joint working group to look at implications for the US Force Posture Review. Recently Commander of US Pacific Command, Admiral Willard, has be