My following lead article appears in today’s edition of Crikey:
Elite Australian soldiers are involved in covert operations for the Americans in the “war on terror”, co-ordinated through the top-secret, Paris-based centre Alliance Base. There has been no public discussion about these missions, but Crikey understands the soldiers are involved in targeting, interrogation and assassinations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Australians are recruited for the jobs, and nominally remain on the army’s books though they are not working for the Australian government while in the field. They don’t wear Australian uniforms but are trained and sometimes transported into war zones by American mercenary companies. Only men with SAS training or similar are eligible for the program and dozens not hundreds are reportedly involved.
Unspoken and unasked is the role of outsourced Australian soldiers in partly privatised missions for Washington.
During the Vietnam War, the Americans ran the Phoenix Program, covert assassination hit squads to kill supposed enemies. Tens of thousands were murdered. Recent WikiLeaks revelations detail similar activity in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Crikey understands Australia has been engaged in such behaviour in the past decade in the Middle East, leaving Canberra and its officials open to potential charges of war crimes and prosecution in an international criminal court. Several Australians engaged in the missions have concerns about the tasks, it’s understood, including the poor quality of intelligence provided to identity alleged insurgents to be captured for interrogation. For example, they are concerned that Afghans with a grudge are passing on suspect information to eradicate local enemies.
A 2004 article by Brian Toohey in The Australian Financial Review first raised the involvement of “Australian troops conducting clandestine operations in Iraq that go far beyond what has been revealed to the Australian public or the Labor opposition”. Toohey reported the CIA trained “Australian graduates” in “assassination techniques” but they “have not yet been asked to put it into practice, as far as can be ascertained”.
Crikey understands that this is no longer the case and that Australia has been involved in preparations for assassinations.
Toohey wrote that the covert teams work for very short periods of time, earn good money, take luxury breaks in Europe to unwind and remain based in a Gulf state. The program, initiated during the Howard years, has continued since the 2007 election of the Labor Party but it remains unclear which levels of government are briefed on the missions.
One source said that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) could be sometimes involved, as Howard government legislation allowed our foreign spy service to carry weapons, allegedly only in self-defence.
Crikey has spoken to several national security journalists in Australia and overseas and discovered that very few concrete details of the program are available.
The recent cover story in The Monthly by Sally Neighbour on the intelligence services in Australia barely mentioned the role of Australia’s overseas intelligence services. Although she documented the excessive secrecy (compared to the US) of intelligence and counter-terror operations, missions involving illegality — kidnapping, assassination, rendition, etc — weren’t touched on extensively.
Crikey asked the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Mark Thomson about these top-secret Australian jobs and he said he had never heard of them. If it was happening, he stated, it was a “bad idea” because he wondered which local and international laws covered the tasks. Furthermore, possible breaches of the Geneva Convention concerned him. “There would be serious questions over accountability,” Thomson stressed.
Alliance Base was first named publicly by Dana Priest in The Washington Post in 2005 and revealed the establishment in 2002 of a Western counter-terrorist intelligence centre (CTIC) in Paris. It is headed by a French general and largely funded by CIA’s counter-terrorist centre. It hosts and trains officers from France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Britain and the US and “analyses the transnational movement of terrorist suspects and develops operations to catch or spy on them”.
Alliance Base was chosen as a name because al-Qaeda means “the base” in Arabic.
Ben Saul, co-director at Sydney Centre for International Law at The University of Sydney, also hadn’t heard of Alliance Base but told Crikey that there were some serious legal questions over the missions. The actual role of the Australian government determines its responsibility before the law. For example, Saul told me, if the individual being targeted was part of a terrorist group and this intelligence was accurate, killing them could be justified.
However, the involvement of private companies in the tasks opens up further transparency questions. The mercenary company “must comply with the laws of armed conflict, international, humanitarian law and a process of post-facto investigation into any killings”.
Saul worried that Canberra was deliberately turning a blind eye to the more extreme actions of the US in war zones. “If Australia is a partner in the program, it ups the legal responsibility.”
The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill reported in late 2009 that private mercenary company Blackwater was working at “the centre of a secret program in which they plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives, ‘snatch and grabs’ of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan.”
Scahill’s source claimed that the program is so “compartmentalised” that senior figures within the Obama Administration and the US military chain of command may not be aware of its existence.
Crikey understands the situation could be similar in Australia with high levels of the Australian government and defence establishment willing to use private firms to undertake some of the most sensitive “counter-terrorism” tasks. Plausible deniability is the name of the game, leaving no direct Australian government-backed fingerprints on actions that international law deems illegal.
“At the start of the Iraq invasion, the US military spent twice as much on its own personnel as it did on procurement from private sources. Within a few years’ time, the military was spending three times as much on outside contractors as on its own men and women in uniform.”
Australia’s bid to ingratiate itself with Washington was on display during the recent visit of Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, with the South Australian government lobbying for more training facilities on its soil. The Gillard government pledged to open the country to even more US military hardware and opportunities and Gillard spoke of an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan.
Fairfax recently exposed Australian training of Afghan warlords here in Australia despite independent reporting that indicates a surging Taliban across the country, and it’s being reported today that Australian-owned security company Compass Integrated Security Solutions has been accused of abuses in Afghanistan — including theft and corruption — by the US Senate’s Committee on Armed Services.
*Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution and is working on a book about disaster capitalism.