ANU experts comment on The Cabinet Files

2 February 2018

A range of leading experts from across ANU have had their say on the high profile incident of 'top secret' government papers and other classified documents being found in old filing cabinets sold in Canberra.


Professor John Blaxland, Head of ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre

"Quite disturbing on one level and reassuring on another. The clear indications of frank and fearless advice from departmental secretaries and agency heads suggests the system is working. But the revelations reveal a lax approach to security that, some would say, has been endemic for some time. It is a sobering reminder of the need for accountability and responsibility. Ministers are responsible and should be accountable. 

"Investigations are hard to pursue in the absence of clear and compelling evidence - and when the likely suspects are highly placed and well connected," Professor Blaxland said.

Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the ANU National Security College

"This is a serious incident, highlighting the constant vigilance that needs to go into protecting sensitive national security information. "The ABC deserves acknowledgement for its sense of responsibility in not publishing the more sensitive security documents in the collection.

"This extraordinary breach underscores the need for government agencies and ministerial offices alike to review whether their protocols for handling secret information are good enough or are being observed. For a start, you would imagine that kind of material should be in a safe, not a filing cabinet.

"The size and high classification level of this cache of documents suggests it came either from the office of a minister or quite a senior official - this is material that junior public servants typically would not handle.

"The nation's national security personnel work hard and diligently to prepare classified briefing documents to serve the national interest. It is an affront to their general professionalism that someone, somewhere was so sloppy with safeguarding it," Professor Medcalf said.

Ms Jacinta Carroll, Director of National Security Policy, ANU National Security College

"While the reported breaches and leaks are concerning, many of the incidents referred to in the media reports are of the security reports that have captured the incidents, and indicate that some incident notification, audit and review processes are in place to track the handling of classified information. 

"For example, the advice regarding papers found in the Minister's office states that security officers from the Department of Parliamentary Services appropriately disposed of them.

"The process associated with reporting lost or unaccounted classified information should include reporting to the owning or originating agency, and allow for a damage assessment of the impact of the information being compromised.

"Given some of the 'Cabinet Files' documents are reports to Cabinet on lost or otherwise unaccounted Cabinet document, it is likely that this occurred for all of these documents at the time.

"Given the current media report, checking the impact of known releases and any new releases will likely be a priority for affected agencies," Ms Carroll said. 

Professor Clive Williams, ANU College of Law

"The classified material seems to be contained in a C Class container - meaning that it is unlikely to be high-level national security material.

"From what has been disclosed so far, it is clearly material that can be politically embarrassing. I doubt that disclosure of  "embarrassing" material is prosecutable, but if the persons who have the classified material cross the line and release highly-classified national security information (on something like Israel's nuclear weapon capability), they would be crossing the line and could possibly be prosecuted under the Crimes Act.

"This is not an isolated case. I am aware of past instances where locked B and C Class containers have been certified empty and sold to the public as government surplus, but in past cases the contents were responsibly returned after the containers were opened," he said.