One year ago today, Rafael Epstein and Dylan Welch reported that the SAS were engaged in espionage operations in Africa, which constituted “an unannounced and possibly dangerous expansion of Australia’s foreign military engagement.”
According to their report, the SAS were carrying out secret operations in African countries such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Kenya, “gathering intelligence on terrorism and scoping rescue strategies for Australian civilians trapped by kidnapping or civil war.”
I have no idea how accurate the story is, but bring it up to make a separate point: since this story broke on 13 March 2012 there has been no further information on this issue.
In contrast with the huge amount of detailed reporting (of varying quality) available on US special forces, no one in the Australian media has confirmed or contradicted anything about these reported SAS operations in Africa. The government provided only the vaguest of responses, and felt under no pressure to divulge anything.
Instead, the story was quickly forgotten about, leaving a year-long silence.
This is further evidence of a problem that journalists, academics and others have highlighted for years: Australia’s unusually high level of secrecy on national security matters. The Australian Defence Force’s restrictive media approach mean we have far less idea what our special forces are up to compared to some other democracies like the United States. This is similar to how our intelligence agencies have blanket 20-30 year freedom-of-information exemptions that aren’t seen in comparable countries like the US, Canada and New Zealand. We also have only a handful of committed and experienced national security focused journalists digging away at these issues.
This is a shame. The story raised serious questions, such as whether SAS soldiers have adequate legal protections for espionage operations, and what their status is if captured.
It also raised the question of whether decisions to deploy the military will be wise if they are made secretively and only among a small group of people, which is particularly relevant on the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq war.
A Lowy Institute submission reported in The Age on Thursday made a similar point about Australia’s excessive military secrecy. It stated that “Australia often lags behind our allies when it comes to defence transparency.”
Also, here are two reports about Australian strategic interests in Africa, which can provide some context for whatever deployments may or may not be happening:
AFRICOM and Australian Military Engagement in Africa
MAJ Matthew J. Cuttell, Australian Regular Army
School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas