ASIO officers secured thousands of sensitive government cabinet documents at ABC offices in Canberra and Brisbane after they were found in a locked filing cabinet bought from a second-hand shop.
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet launched an urgent investigation on Wednesday after the ABC revealed it had obtained papers covering details five federal government cabinet meetings over a decade.
At around 1am on Thursday, ASIO officers took a safe to the public broadcaster’s bureaus at Parliament House and Brisbane so the documents could be secured.
The trove, some classified ‘top secret’, was sold cheaply at a second-hand shop in Canberra, which stocked ex-government furniture.
ASIO officers secured thousands of sensitive government cabinet documents at ABC offices in Canberra and Brisbane in the early hours of Thursday morning
The filing cabinets were unlocked with a drill months later.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said the person responsible for losing the documents will have serious questions to answer.
‘Obviously someone’s had a shocker and the investigation will find out exactly how this happened,’ he told ABC radio on Wednesday.
Cabinet papers are legally supposed to remain secret for 20 years after their production.
A treasure trove of secret and highly sensitive cabinet documents has been discovered in two second-hand filing cabinets bought at a Canberra auction (pictured is a stock image of Parliament House in Canberra)
‘In the process of running a country, there are things which go awry. This is one of them,’ Mr Joyce said.
The ABC said it had chosen not to publish many of the documents because of their classified nature.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott said he believed a junior or mid-ranking departmental officer was to blame and insisted they ‘pay a price’.
‘Not so much a cabinet leak as a leaked cabinet – that seems to be the problem,’ Mr Abbott told 2GB radio.
The documents show ASIO was told to delay security checks so asylum seekers would miss deadlines and be unable to receive permanent protection visas.
They also reveal the National Security Committee under the Howard Government considered removing the right to remain silent under police questioning.
One document points to an audit showing the Australian Federal Police lost almost 400 national security files over five years.
The loss of the documents, which had been through the national security committee of cabinet between 2008 and 2013, was uncovered in an audit by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
In one paper, it was revealed former prime minister Tony Abbott (pictured) ignored legal advice when he handed over cabinet documents to the insulation royal commission
The papers also included a document that stated 195 top-secret codeword-protected and sensitive documents had been left in the office of former Labor government minister Penny Wong when Labor lost the 2013 election.
The documents which were left in the office – but not included in the old filing cabinets – included Middle East defence plans.
They also included national security briefs, Afghan war updates, intelligence on Australia’s neighbours and details of counter-terrorism operations.
In another paper, it was revealed former Prime Minister Tony Abbott ignored legal advice when he handed over cabinet documents to the insulation royal commission.
‘We think it would be highly undesirable (and legally confounding) if the Commonwealth were to simply produce cabinet-related documents to the royal commission on the basis of a purported waiver of public interest immunity,’ read the advice from Tom Howe QC, chief counsel at the Australian Government Solicitor.
Meanwhile, the Federal Government announced sweeping changes to espionage and intelligence law to limit interference in Australia’s political system.
ASIO warned the nation is facing an unprecedented level of foreign interference, worse than during the Cold War.
Appearing at a Canberra hearing examining proposed new laws to crack down on such offences, officials said adversaries were generally known during the Cold War, whereas there is a raft of unknown players today.
‘Whilst (the Cold War) was obviously a very busy time in that particular period in history, our assessment is it’s not on the scale which we’re experiencing today,’ deputy director general Peter Vickery said on Wednesday.
‘(Espionage and foreign influence) is not something we think might happen, or possibly could happen, it is happening now against Australian interests in Australia and Australian interests abroad.’
Asked how concerned politicians should be about attempts to influence Australia’s political systems, Mr Vickery said ‘everybody should be alive to the possibility of it happening at a local, state and federal level’.
China expert Professor Clive Hamilton told the hearing that, while the draft laws are vital, media organisations fear the reforms could ‘criminalise’ journalism and unfairly punish those who are leaked documents with up to 20 years jail.