War Memorial historians denied access to Afghanistan war crimes report

Australia’s official military history unit has been denied access to the unredacted final report of the Brereton war crimes inquiry, potentially compromising its ability to record a complete and accurate account of the nation’s longest war.

The historians with the unit are researching Australia’s military commitment in conflicts in East Timor and the Middle East as part of a project launched in 2016 funded by the federal government and backed by the Australian War Memorial.

Australian Army soldiers from Special Operations Task Group prepare for a night-time operation in Oruzgan in 2008.Credit:ADF

Two official sources with knowledge of the unit’s work say they have sought access to Justice Paul Brereton’s three-section report, but were told earlier this year by the Defence Department it could not be shared with them.

The Brereton inquiry, conducted under the auspices of the Australian military Inspector-General and completed in November 2020, alleged in a redacted final report that a dozen or so Australian special forces soldiers executed up to 39 Afghan prisoners and civilians.

Justice Paul Brereton’s work has sparked ongoing investigations by the Australian Federal Police and the Office of the Special Investigator (OSI), a new war crimes investigative agency staffed with homicide detectives and lawyers.

But while AFP and OSI staff have been given access to parts of the unredacted report to inform their investigations, the nation’s war history research team has not. One reason is the danger that disclosing Justice Brereton’s full report to anyone outside the AFP or OSI could compromise investigations or prosecutions because of the risk of inadvertently tipping off suspects and prejudicing court processes.

The history unit is part of the Australian War Memorial.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

However, several figures outside these agencies and the military chain of command, including the former defence minister Linda Reynolds and academic, historian and ethicist Professor Tom Frame, have been confidentially briefed on the classified contents of the report. Ms Reynolds was briefed in her capacity as defence minister and Professor Frame was briefed so he could conduct a review for Defence.

One option was for the war history unit to receive closed-door access to the full Brereton report, allowing it to inform its confidential research but not be published.

But as one informed source explained, “the historians won’t see the unredacted Brereton report until the public sees it”. This could be as long as seven years away, given the report is unlikely to be released in its entirety until the final war crimes prosecutions are over.

It is not clear what impact the denial of access to the Brereton report will have on the ability of the war history unit to do its job. The sources said the historians barred access to the report believed at least some of the more sinister aspects of the nation’s Afghanistan deployments could still be told using other research methods, including interviewing veterans and examining open-source material.

But it is not in doubt that Justice Paul Brereton’s exhaustive four year non-redacted inquiry report, which relied on sworn testimony of over 300 former soldiers and military officials, is the most detailed document that exists dealing with the alleged war crimes scandal.

The publicly available version of Justice Brereton’s report gives detailed analysis of cultural failings in Defence but provides almost no detail about the missions and personnel implicated in the alleged executions of Afghan civilians and prisoners.

His redacted findings, though, make clear at least some historically significant missions have been tainted by alleged criminal conduct. For instance, Justice Brereton singled out a major bravery medal given to a special forces soldier in a battle his inquiry found was allegedly “wilfully misreported” by a small SAS patrol. Justice Brereton also described uncovering possibly the “worst” episode in Australian military history, although provided no details about what this entailed.

The work of the war history unit is official in that it is commissioned and funded by government as the authoritative national record of Australia’s involvement in particular conflicts. According to the Australian War Memorial, “official historians are granted unrestricted access to closed period and security classified government records”.

The unit, led by respected war historian Professor Craig Stockings, is currently responsible for providing “a detailed, authoritative account of Australia’s extensive and complex combat operations” in Iraq (2003–11) and Afghanistan (2001–14), as well as its role in peacekeeping operations in East Timor (1999–2012)“.

The war history unit relies partly on “after action” mission reviews written with input from soldiers and officers in the hours after they return to base post military operation.

As Justice Brereton found, these reviews were commonly “manipulated … routinely embellished and sometimes outright fabricated”.

The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.

Most Viewed in Politics

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article