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As police discover who originally owned the two safes full of cabinet-level documents obtained by the ABC, the prime minister calls for heads to roll. By Karen Middleton.

AFP identifies cabinet files’ owner

It’s the bureaucratic whodunit prompting frenzied chatter in Canberra public service circles and beyond.

Who kept the highly confidential cabinet-level documents that found their way inside locked storage units to a second-hand furniture dealer and ultimately to the national broadcaster?

And who let the two heavy cabinets for which the keys had been lost leave the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet with the files still inside, in breach of all protocols for storing and handling confidential information?

Even Australia’s closest international allies – the “Five Eyes” security partners, the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand – have gently inquired as to whether there was anything in the leaked files they should be concerned about, and been assured by an embarrassed government that there was not.

Just over a week after the ABC revealed how it came upon the slew of cross-portfolio documents spanning five governments, the department and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have made some investigative progress.

The AFP now know who initially held the documents. The Saturday Paper has confirmed the person is no longer working in the Commonwealth Public Service.

When the security breach made headlines, that person contacted the department and identified themselves as the documents’ probable original keeper.

But it’s understood this is not the same person who dispatched the locked cabinets to be sold.

Based on what has been published and described, crossing so many areas and such a time frame of governments, some of those familiar with handling cabinet-level documents believe it was a carefully curated set of records touching on issues that might be problematic for individuals or the government in future, a file of potentially flammable material that could ignite spot fires or possibly put them out.

“This is someone’s treasure trove,” one observer concluded.

But while the musings continue over why the documents were grouped that way, seemingly contravening rules that state each government can only access its own cabinet files and not those of its predecessors until they are in open release 20 years hence, the government is more interested in who let them go and how it happened.

Inside and outside the public service, senior figures are privately calling it “beyond embarrassing”.

“If you’re disposing of a wardrobe in your home, you’d check it didn’t have something in it,” one says.

Further suggesting public sector document management procedures might have slipped a little, the day after the ABC’s revelations, The Canberra Times revealed it had been handed a notebook containing handwritten military intelligence information about counterterrorism operations, along with three security passes.

A man said he found them inside a plastic bag, taped to the back of the drawer of an unlocked ex-government cabinet he had bought from a recycled goods seller at a Canberra tip.

He said he had double-checked the cabinet, which he bought in December, after hearing the ABC story.

The Canberra Times passed the notebook to the Defence Department without detailing its contents, which the department later said included sensitive and classified national security information, including some pertaining to intelligence agencies.

The security passes and notebook apparently all belonged to the one person. Defence has launched its own inquiry.

Identifying whoever was responsible for the PM&C security breach is proving complicated.

There was initially some investigatory confusion over the locked units being described as “filing cabinets”. Inside the public service, that refers
to regular filing cabinets, opened with a little key on the top right but not considered secure.

The storage units for these kinds of documents are more properly described as safes and that’s what these were.

There are rules about which kinds of documents must be stored in which kinds of safes.

Shaped like a filing cabinet, a B-class safe is much sturdier and secured with a large, round combination lock.

Below that, the C-class is also more solid than an ordinary cabinet, with a deadlock in the centre of the top drawer that opens with a security key.

The Saturday Paper understands the storage units in question were C-class safes. The person who bought them from the furniture dealer was able to drill the lock – thereby demonstrating why the most sensitive government documents are supposed to be kept in something more tamper-proof.

Notwithstanding that the ABC has withheld from publication any documents pertaining to national security, some of these possibly should have been in something above C-class.

But with the original keeper no longer employed by the Commonwealth, it’s likely there will be no sanction.

The same could be potentially true for the person or people, if identified, who let the units leave the office and then the building.

Asked on ABC TV’s Insiders program last Sunday if he wanted to see heads roll over this, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: “Yes.”

“This is a disgraceful, almost unbelievable act of negligence,” he said.

“… The idea that public servants entrusted with highly confidential documents would put them in a safe, lock the safe, lose the keys, and then sell the safe without checking what was in it – it beggars belief.”

In a statement to The Saturday Paper, the AFP says it is “undertaking an evaluation of the matter” – it does not call it an investigation – and “conducting a number of inquiries”.

“It is not appropriate for the AFP to provide specific detail about these inquiries,” the AFP said.

It urges anyone who has “unauthorised access to classified documents, or is aware of someone who has unauthorised access” to phone the National Security Hotline on 1800 123 400.

It declined to comment any further.

It is understood the evaluators have zeroed in on the cabinet division of PM&C, the departmental clearing-house that manages and distributes cabinet documents and maintains the records from previous governments.

As is protocol in security matters, the Opposition was briefed on the situation on Monday.

Two days later, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten wrote to the prime minister, describing the incident as “extremely serious”.

Shorten acknowledged that Turnbull had already stated his own concern and vowed to investigate and hold to account those responsible.

He wrote that it was essential to not only find out how “this extraordinary error” occurred, but to ensure it didn’t happen again.

“Whether poor cabinet procedures or bureaucratic incompetence is the cause, I urge you to ensure procedures for the handling and storage of sensitive information by the government are systematically reviewed and strengthened,” he wrote.

Shorten urged that any such review and the more immediate police investigation be wide-ranging and “unfettered”.

“The end result cannot be simply to slate blame to a middle-ranking or departmental officer deemed to be expendable – accountable senior departmental staff and the relevant minister/s need to be held to account.”

Also on Wednesday, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, announced just such a wider review of procedures.

He has appointed former diplomat and Defence Department head Ric Smith to examine PM&C’s “procedures, practices and culture”.

“This review will address the implications for the Australian Public Service more broadly,” Parkinson said.

In a response to Shorten’s letter, Malcolm Turnbull confirmed he was extremely concerned about the breach and explained further what he hoped from the Smith review.

“I expect that Mr Smith will make a series of recommendations to ensure that all classified material is handled by public servants in an appropriately secure and practical manner that reflects the trust and confidence placed in them by the government and the Opposition of the day,” Turnbull wrote.

The review would consider the nexus between the security of physical and electronic documents and the management of Commonwealth records.

The agency that will have final custody of those records in the future, the National Archives of Australia, is concerned it could damage public faith in that process and sow doubt about the veracity or completeness of records when they fall into the open-access period and are released in future.

Under the Archives Act, it is an offence for any person to engage in conduct that results in the destruction, disposal, damage or alteration or “transfer of custody or ownership” of Commonwealth records. The baseline penalty is a $4200 fine.

But that person first has to be identified.

It’s not just the public servants facing criticism over the handling of the cabinet documents. Veteran journalist and security expert Brian Toohey has accused the ABC of kowtowing to the government, slamming the broadcaster for failing to follow up its own exclusive stories, declining to publish or reveal the nature of any national security material, potentially jeopardising the identity of its source and handing the documents back.

“Imagine them being given today the equivalent of the Pentagon Papers,” Toohey told Sky News.

“They’d shudder and say: ‘Dear oh me, that was terrible. Yes, it shows the American people have been deceived in the Vietnam War but, oh, it’s got a national security mark on it. Call the Pentagon, get them to send over a safe and we’ll send it back.’ ”

Other journalists have been murmuring similarly.

On the other side of the argument, Ric Smith is expected to begin his broader security review once the AFP “evaluation” concludes.

Turnbull’s departmental secretary, Martin Parkinson, has made it known that in appointing Smith to undertake the review he aims to send a clear message across the public service about the protection of sensitive material.

Whether or not heads actually roll, the procedures for storing sensitive material – and the places they are stored – will likely be subject to a bit of an upgrade.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 10, 2018 as "Barmy disposal". Subscribe here.

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

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