Australia state secrets exposed after sale of filing cabinets

Thousands of classified documents mistakenly sold at second-hand shop in Canberra.

Thousands of top secret Australian government documents were mistakenly sold at a second-hand shop in Canberra and later handed to the media, Australia’s state broadcaster has reported.  The ABC on Wednesday published details of the documents, which cover the secret discussions and decisions made by five governments over almost a decade.

The broadcaster described the trove as “one of the biggest breaches of cabinet security in Australian history”. The broadcaster has published a series of stories based on information in the documents, including how the Australian Federal Police lost nearly 400 national security files from the cabinet’s National Security Committee — a top secret body that deploys the military and approves kill, capture or destroy missions.

“Nearly all the files are classified, some as ‘top secret’ or ‘AUSTEO’, which means they are to be seen by Australian eyes only,” said the ABC, which details the story of how it obtained the cabinet files. “It begins at a second-hand shop in Canberra, where ex-government furniture is sold off cheaply.

The deals can be even cheaper when the items in question are two heavy filing cabinets to which no one can find the keys. “They were purchased for small change and sat unopened for some months until the locks were attacked with a drill. Inside was the trove of documents now known as The Cabinet Files,” it said.

The Australian government said it had begun an “urgent investigation” into the circumstances around the disposal of the filing cabinets.

The incident follows a series of government data breaches worldwide, including in Sweden and the UK. The ABC said if the people who discovered the files been inclined, “there was nothing stopping them handing the contents to a foreign agent or government”.

A screenshot shows the the ABC’s page on “The Cabinet Files” The cabinet documents detail how the Liberal-National government ordered its spy agency to intervene in asylum cases in late-2013 to prevent the granting of permanent protection visas. They also reveal that nearly 200 top secret code documents were left in the office of an outgoing Labor minister following the change of government in 2013.

“The 195 documents [left in the office] included Middle East defence plans, national security briefs, Afghan war updates, intelligence on Australia’s neighbours and details of counter-terrorism operations,” it said.

Emails from the cabinet papers, seen by the ABC, reveal how security staff found the documents left in the office after the election and oversaw their destruction. The cabinet papers show that the Liberal National government under former prime minister Tony Abbott considered banning anyone under the age of 30 from receiving welfare payments.

It also reveals the government of former prime minister John Howard considered removing an individual’s right to remain silent when questioned by the police. The loss of the cabinet documents represents an embarrassment for the government, which has recently published draft laws to crack down on foreign interference and espionage.

Civil liberties groups have warned that the tough laws could lead to the imprisonment of whistleblowers or journalists who possess sensitive government information. Cabinet papers are meant to remain secret for 20 years to enable ministers to speak frankly when in session.

The ABC said the loss of the documents exposed “a seemingly casual attitude of some of those charged with keeping the documents safe”. The broadcaster said it had decided not to published some of the documents for national security reasons.

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