Following my lead story in Crikey yesterday on the role of Australian troops in US-led assassination squads, the following responses appear today. For the record, a number of people have contacted me since publication and confirmed the allegations in the story. Much more in the coming years:
Neil James, Executive Director, Australia Defence Association: As the independent, non-partisan, national public-interest watchdog for defence and wider national security issues, can we point out that the article by Antony Loewenstein in yesterday’s Crikey suffered two substantial and serious flaws that surely should have been challenged and corrected during the Crikey editorial process. Or else the whole article should have been spiked as crap, not journalism, or even as reasonable comment in public debate.
First, the article was merely a mixture of undergraduate-level urban rumours, historical myth (especially about the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War) and left-wing conspiracy theory, flavoured by numerous factual mistakes, misrepresentations and misunderstandings about our defence force, its compliance with international law and, indeed, the way Australia actually works as a democracy ruled by law.
Even the two Australian sources cited, such as an equally fact-free, six-year old, long-discredited Brian Toohey article in the Australian Financial Review, and a more recent but also unbalanced and quite factually erroneous article by Sally Neighbour in The Monthly, provided no actual basis for the specific and general claims made. Journalists quoting other mistaken journalists is not substantiation.
Second, everyone is free to write such tripe but it was plainly very irresponsible of Crikey to publish it. Our soldiers are deployed in Afghanistan fighting a UN-endorsed war at the lawful direction of our elected government, and on our behalf. It is unfair at best for any Australian to make their job harder or more dangerous by writing or publishing biased nonsense that can be so easily misused in Al Qa’eda propaganda. There is no excuse to betray the men and women of our defence force by such stupid, thoughtless and irresponsible claims. If you disagree with the war in Afghanistan, argue with our government (using facts), not endanger our troops (by wild claims).
Let us also be clear here about what Crikey has boldly stated. “Crikey understands Australia has been engaged in such behaviour [alleged assassinations contrary to the Laws of Armed Conflict] in the past decade in the Middle East, leaving Canberra and its officials open to potential charges of war crimes and prosecution in an [sic] international criminal court”.
Previous Ministers for Defence and the current Chief of Defence Force have pointed out on several previous occasions — when journalists have made incorrect claims about “assassinations” — that the ADF, including its Special Forces, have not and do not ever assassinate anybody. They do not even deliberately kill anyone, except in battle, and where authorised by Australian rules-of-engagement grounded in the Laws of Armed Conflict and the ethics of a professional defence force made up of fellow Australians.
Similar denials have been made by Ministers responsible for ASIS. No journalist, or polemicist, has ever been able to back up such a claim with a single substantiated fact. Furthermore, as in this case, every journalist’s sole defence when challenged to prove it has been merely to cite older unsubstantiated claims by other unprofessional journalists or ideologues.
Then there is the determined lack of balance that permeated the article. The numerous denials by the Ministers and CDF are not even mentioned. No military or intelligence historian was cited either. The only two academic experts consulted, a defence finance expert and a lawyer who does not specialise in LOAC, naturally commented on a hypothetical basis only (and I suspect were not quoted accurately anyway). Both made the unsurprising qualified observation that, if true, such acts would be illegal.
Neither, however, offered any confirmation of the wild claims made or that they considered such claims might or could be true. Moreover, neither the ADA as the relevant public-interest watchdog, or the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers as the relevant professional body, were asked for an opinion. Antony has consulted us before so the omission this time is puzzling if one assumes he approached the topic objectively.
And just in case someone claims that the ADA is somehow biased, may I point out our extensive record of condemning the use of torture, rendition and assassination in the UN-endorsed international campaign against Islamist terrorism (usually referred to incorrectly by polemicists as the supposed “war on terror”).
Professor Douglas Kirsner, School of International & Political Studies, Deakin University, writes: Antony Loewenstein suspects that Australian SAS soldiers are committing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. His evidence: a six year old article by Brian Toohey claiming that Australian soldiers are being clandestinely trained in assassination preparations, and, Loewenstein says with no evidence, that it’s gone beyond that. He makes allusions to US Phoenix operation during Vietnam and to such operations being carried out currently by the US, through Wikileaks. So what has this to do with Australia?
The evidence is nothing but the usual Loewenstein conspiracy theory innuendo. “Unspoken and unasked”, Australian soldiers are involved in “preparations for assassinations”. When Crikey (i.e., Loewenstein) contacted national security reporters, they knew nothing about it. Sounds sinister? Sally Neighbour’s Monthly cover story mentioned little about illegal activities. (Still more sinister — what are they hiding?). Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Mark Thomson knew nothing about it and thought it a silly idea anyway. (It must be true then). Ben Saul from the University of Sydney knew nothing of any such activities of Alliance Base. (Therefore true) If it were true, then that would be bad, etc., etc.
There is a credibility gap here, but it lies with Loewenstein and Crikey. This appalling investigative journalism is not even fit for your rumour bin. Israel-obsessed Loewenstein has crossed the line with outrageous allegations about our defence forces, based only upon innuendo and far-left conspiracy theories.