These are the filing cabinets which held some of Australia’s most sensitive secrets and were sold off at a second-hand shop in Canberra – with no-one thinking to check what was inside.
The revelations of the extraordinary cache of confidential cabinet documents, which was then leaked to the ABC, comes as the Turnbull government pushes sweeping changes to the nation’s espionage and intelligence laws that could see those in possession of sensitive government information jailed for 20 years.
ASIO officers raided the ABC’s bureaus at Parliament House and Brisbane at 1am on Thursday after it was revealed the public broadcaster had obtained thousands of top secret documents covering the inner workings of the past five federal governments.
The trove, which included national security briefs and Middle East defence plans, was sold for a ‘small charge’ at a pre-owned shop which stocked ex-government furniture in Canberra.
The cabinets, for which there was no key, sat in the store for months before the purchaser finally opened them with a drill.
These are the dodgy filing cabinets which held some of Australia’s most sensitive secrets
ASIO officers raided the ABC’s bureaus at Parliament House and Brisbane at 1am on Thursday, securing the documents in this safe
One theory is that they belonged to a bureaucrat who handled Freedom of Information requests, while another suggests the were owned by the The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
ASIO staff were on Thursday morning pictured securing the files, placing them in cardboard boxes and locking them into safes.
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.
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet launched an urgent investigation.
The dramatic raids came as the government announced a major shake-up of Australia’s treason laws to limit interference in the county’s political system.
The files contained top secret documents covering the inner workings of the past five federal governments
ASIO officers secured thousands of sensitive government cabinet documents at ABC offices in Canberra and Brisbane in the early hours of Thursday morning
The laws will ban foreign political donations and establish a foreign influence transparency register.
A new offence of intentional foreign interference will make it a crime for a person to engage in conduct on behalf of a foreign principal that will influence a political or governmental process.
The offence of espionage will capture not only the passing on of information, but possessing and receiving it.
Appearing at a Canberra hearing examining proposed new laws, 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.’
WHAT INFORMATION WAS LOCKED AWAY IN FILING CABINETS SOLD AT A SECOND-HAND SHOP?
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.
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.
ASIO staff (left) are seen at ABC officers on Thursday morning. Barnaby Joyce said the person responsible for losing the documents will have serious questions to answer
At around 1am on Thursday, ASIO officers took a safe to the public broadcaster’s bureaus at Parliament House and Brisbane
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)
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.
Universities and the Catholic church are also worried they could be caught up in the changes, announced by the Turnbull government in December.
The attorney-general’s department responded to claims the draft laws are too broad, and said it would not prohibit people from political debate but rather merely require registration if they were working with a foreign agent.
Officials insisted academic activity would only fall within the legislation if it was undertaken on behalf of a foreign principal and for the purpose of influencing a political process.