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Amid the Brereton report’s findings that military reports have been ‘routinely embellished’, the IGADF is reassessing concerns raised by David Savage, a civilian who sustained serious injuries during a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in 2012. By Karen Middleton.

Doubts raised over ADF reports

The Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) is considering investigating the ADF’s handling of a 2012 bombing incident in Afghanistan that wounded Australian AusAID officer David Savage, amid concerns highlighted by the Brereton inquiry that ADF officers often whitewash military incident reports.

The office of the IGADF is assessing a submission Savage made in July to its inquiry into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

Savage is a decorated former Australian Federal Police officer and international war crimes investigator who was left incapacitated by a 2012 suicide bombing attack near the town of Chora in Afghanistan’s rural Uruzgan province.

In his submission to the IGADF, Savage raised concerns about how operational incidents are investigated, suggesting the resulting reports often seem “based on the outcome Defence wishes to have”.

Savage said the official findings about the bomb attack that wounded him were inconsistent with video evidence and eyewitness accounts of the incident.

Last month, the IGADF determined it was unable to consider his submission within its war crimes inquiry because it fell outside the specific terms of reference.

But it confirmed it was concerned about the matters he raised and would examine them.

In its report prepared by Justice Paul Brereton and published last week, which found credible evidence some Australian special forces soldiers murdered 39 unarmed civilians and prisoners in Afghanistan, the IGADF recommended a broad raft of changes for the ADF, including the wearing of body cameras.

It said the ADF should establish a new independent reporting line outside the chain of command, so soldiers could raise concerns about suspected unlawful behaviour.

Querying some investigators’ capabilities, the report said that “an independent, tri-service, multi-disciplinary specialist operations inquiry cell” should be established. Possibly attached to the IGADF itself, this could handle the inquiries into operational incidents, instead of legal officers from each service investigating their own colleagues.

It also said stronger whistleblower protections were needed because current provisions, and grievance processes, were “not adequate”. ADF personnel feared “professional, social and physical retaliation” for speaking up, according to the IGADF.

A Defence spokesperson told The Saturday Paper a comprehensive plan was being prepared to implement the IGADF’s recommendations.

“This deliberate and considered process will ensure appropriate governance and thorough consideration of the report’s complex and sensitive findings and recommendations,” the spokesperson said.

David Savage was the first Australian civilian to be wounded during the Afghanistan conflict.

For seven years after he was injured, the Australian government obfuscated before making an “act of grace” payment in 2019 to Savage and his wife, Sandra, for the impact the bombing had on their lives. During that time, Savage repeatedly raised the inaccuracies in the incident report and requested through his lawyer that they be reinvestigated. His requests were rejected.

As reported by The Saturday Paper and the ABC in December last year, Savage and his security detail of United States National Guard reservists had been returning on foot to the Australian-run military base near Chora in March 2012 when a child approached the patrol dressed all in white – known to signify martyrdom. Savage says none of the soldiers guarding him reacted to the boy’s approach or instructed him to stop, which should have been normal procedure. The child detonated a suicide-bomb vest. The impact almost killed Savage and three American soldiers. Their injuries were catastrophic.

One Australian soldier deployed in Afghanistan at the time said he and his colleagues were told not to be seen as “blaming or accusing” the Americans in relation to what happened to Savage.

American helmet-cam video of the incident and the period leading up to the attack shows the US soldiers appearing to breach a range of standard procedures for such security patrols. However, ADF investigators dismissed the video footage as irrelevant.

They also insisted that security cameras at the military base near Chora had not been switched on, despite soldiers deployed there saying privately that they had seen camera footage.

Instead, the subsequent inquiry officer inquiry (IOI) report sought to blame Savage for his own injuries, accusing him of breaking rules by wearing non-standard-issue American body armour – which fitted him properly, unlike the Australian-issued version – and criticising him for being overweight.

Savage was a civilian posted alongside ADF personnel. His own department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, refused to support his requests to investigate the bombing further.

The IGADF expressed similar concerns to those Savage raised about the way operational incidents are investigated.

It found that reports “frequently did not truly and accurately report the facts of engagements, even where they were innocent and lawful, but were routinely embellished, often using ‘boilerplate’ language [identical wording in multiple reports]”.

It said this practice appeared to be designed to demonstrate compliance with the rules of engagement and minimise the risk of scrutiny from higher up. Those involved knew how to describe an incident to achieve that.

“This may be a manifestation of a wider propensity to be inclined to report what superior commanders are believed to want to hear,” the inquiry report said. “… The wider manifestation needs to be addressed.”

The IGADF urged the military to overhaul its investigation and reporting processes.

It found incident reports were routinely airbrushed to cover up inconvenient truths, legitimise manufactured evidence and protect individuals.

While the report focused on the special forces – particularly the Special Air Service regiment – its criticism of the culture around IOIs went beyond that.

Asked last week whether he considered fabrication in incident reports was also an issue for the wider ADF, Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell said: “I don’t think this is just about the special forces and special operations command. If the entire Australian Defence Force does not learn from it and strengthen all of the aspects of areas of our operational ability … we’re not preparing ourselves to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Campbell said the practice of embellishing or inappropriately modifying reports was “completely unacceptable”. He said he had not seen it as the norm in wider operational reporting.

“I want the entire Defence Force to learn, to think, to reflect and say: ‘I will not go there’,” he said.

Responding in October to David Savage’s submission, the assistant inspector-general, Colonel Charles Vagi, wrote that the Afghanistan inquiry was interested in “failures in the Inquiry Officer Inquiry system” and that Savage’s matter was “relevant to that”.

“The matters that you raised are serious,” he said.

Subsequent correspondence received the day before the IGADF report was released confirmed Savage’s concerns had been referred for further assessment. He was told the options included directing that an inquiry be conducted, obtaining further information for a more detailed assessment, referring the matter to another agency or taking “no further action”.

Savage is awaiting the decision.

For support, veterans can contact Open Arms, 24 hours a day, on 1800 011 046.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2020 as "Doubts raised over ADF reports".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.