Press Conference – IGADF Afghanistan Inquiry
19 November 2020
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land upon which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their Elders; past, present and emerging.
Today, the Australian Defence Force is rightly held to account for allegations of grave misconduct by some members of our Special Forces community on operations in Afghanistan.
Before turning to the Inspector-General’s report, it’s important to note that over the period from 2005 to 2016, more than 26,000 Australians served in Afghanistan, 3,000 of them in the Special Operations Task Group.
An enormous amount of good work was done by many and we should be proud of their contribution, as they should be proud of their contribution.
What the Inspector-General finds is greatly at odds with that good effort and damaging to our moral authority as a military force.
His report details credible information regarding deeply disturbing allegations of unlawful killings by some.
I respectfully ask Australians to remember and have faith in the many. I assure you I do.
To the people of Afghanistan, on behalf of the Australian Defence Force, I sincerely and unreservedly apologise for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers. I’ve spoken directly with my Afghan counterpart, General Zia, to convey this message.
Such alleged behaviour:
- profoundly disrespected the trust placed in us by the Afghan people who had asked us to their country to help them;
- it would have devastated the lives of Afghan families and communities, causing immeasurable pain and suffering; and
- it would have put in jeopardy our mission and the safety of our Afghan and coalition partners.
And to the people of Australia, I am sincerely sorry for any wrongdoing by members of the Australian Defence Force.
You’re right to expect that your defence force will defend your nation and its interests in a manner that accords with our nation’s values and laws.
Turning to the Inspector-General’s report, he found:
- none of the alleged unlawful killings were described as being in the heat of battle;
- none were alleged to have occurred in circumstances in which the intent of the perpetrator was unclear, confused or mistaken;
- and every person spoken to by the Inquiry thoroughly understood the Law of Armed Conflict and the Rules of Engagement under which they operated.
These findings allege the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values.
The unlawful killing of civilians and prisoners is never acceptable.
It’s my duty and that of my fellow Chiefs to set things right.
Accountability rests with those who allegedly broke the law and with the chain-of-command responsible for the systemic failures, which enabled alleged breaches to occur and go undetected.
In order to deal with what happened we need to understand how it could have happened. I will offer a preliminary view based on both the Inspector-General’s findings and my own professional judgement.
It starts with culture.
The report finds that some Special Air Service Regiment commanders in Australia fostered within the SAS what Justice Brereton terms a self-centred warrior culture, a misplaced focus on prestige, status and power, turning away from the Regiment’s heritage of military excellence fused with the quiet humility of service.
The report notes that distorted culture was embraced and amplified by some experienced, charismatic and influential non-commissioned officers and their protégés who sought to fuse military excellence with ego, elitism and entitlement.
As units became consumed with preparing for and fighting the war much of the good order and discipline of military life fell away. Cutting corners, ignoring and bending rules was normalised.
What also emerged was a toxic competitiveness between the Special Air Service Regiment and the 2nd Commando Regiment. Destructive of trust, cohesion and mission and a disgrace to both.
Not correcting this culture as it developed was a failure of unit and higher command.
Turning now to the challenging counterinsurgency environment of Afghanistan.
People detained would be released if there was no formal link that linked them to insurgent activity.
‘Catch and release’, as it came to be known, throughout the coalition, was frustrating and carried with it some risk, but it was also understood to be a necessary measure, a point of balance between the needs of security and the needs of justice, both essential in a counterinsurgency campaign.
In this context it’s alleged that some patrols took the law into their own hands. Rules were broken, stories concocted, lies told and prisoners killed. And once that rule was broken, so too for some was any further restraint.
Those who wished to speak up were allegedly discouraged, intimidated and discredited.
Here I want to emphasise again that the overwhelming majority of Special Forces personnel did not choose to take this unlawful path. No matter the stress and the strain of battle, they remained true to our values and our laws.
They are truly special – special because of the self-discipline and the courage they constantly displayed. They upheld our culture of service over self.
Culture also affected reporting.
The Inspector-General finds that troop, squadron and commanding officers of some Special Operations Task Group rotations indirectly contributed to alleged criminal behaviour.
This occurred in a number of ways, but particularly by accepting deviations from professional standards, by sanitising or embellishing reporting to avoid attracting attention, and by not challenging or verifying accounts given by those on the ground.
Oversight mechanisms, such as legal reviews, operational assessments and inquiries took place, but they were not sufficiently rigorous or independent. Individuals and processes were either suborned into the culture that had emerged, obstructed by it or frustrated by the silence it bred.
This Inquiry found no evidence that there was knowledge of or reckless indifference to the commission of war crimes on the part of Troop, Squadron and Commanders of Special Operations Task Groups and higher command.
However, being unaware of or even deliberately kept unaware of unlawful actions does not relieve commanders of moral responsibility, and the report finds task group commanders bear responsibility for what happened under their command.
Higher arrangements for command and control were found to be too dispersed and too distanced to consistently give effective direction and control to Special Operations Task Groups.
While commanders at many levels described the status of Special Operations Command as stretched but manageable, none appreciated that reporting and governance systems, which routinely described extraordinary performance, were no longer reflecting the whole truth on the ground.
Reporting was positive and soldiers and field commanders alike showed genuine enthusiasm for their campaign and for their participation in it. Nevertheless, higher command should have recognised sooner that the units of Special Operations Command were unable to sustain all the demands placed upon them.
Justice Brereton considered in detail 57 allegations of incidents and issues.
He found there to be credible information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 Australian Special Forces personnel, predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment.
Those alleged to have been unlawfully killed were all people under control – in lay terms, prisoners, farmers or other civilians.
This shameful record includes alleged instances in which new patrol members were coerced to shoot a prisoner in order to achieve that soldier’s first kill in an appalling practice known as ‘blooding’.
Further to this, ‘throwdown’ weapons and radios were also reportedly planted to support claims that people killed were ‘enemy killed in action’.
Some of these incidents took place in 2009 and 2010 with the majority occurring in the latter years of 2012 and 2013.
Alleged perpetrators deployed on between one and five Special Operations Task Group rotations over the period 2006 to 2013.
I have accepted all of the Inspector-General’s findings and a comprehensive implementation plan is being developed to action his 143 recommendations and any additional measures necessary.
I will lead this effort, supported by the Chief of Army and other senior Defence leaders.
We’ll report progressively on a quarterly basis to the Minister for Defence. The independent Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel will have complete access to our work.
The recommendations deal with three main issues: culture, command reporting and governance, and within that wider context individual and collective accountability.
Firstly, in terms of culture, Army has in parallel with this Inquiry driven a comprehensive reform program within Special Operations Command over the last five years. This program focuses on ethical leadership, good governance and command responsibility.
While much good progress has been made, the report notes that elements of resistance to change and professionally corrosive attitudes or behaviours persist.
The Inspector-General’s recommendations will strengthen and accelerate Army’s reform of Special Operations Command which will continue.
The allegations contained in this report are a tragic reminder of why the authority military excellence and small team autonomy so necessary for Special Operations are only secondary factors in our military success. Prime always is the nurturing of character and culture so that our people derive the strength to do what’s right in the most difficult of circumstances.
Defence senior leadership are committed to sustaining and promoting good culture based on Defence values and behaviours that empowers and enables military capability.
We have no tolerance for anything else, and we will strengthen and drive ethical leadership training across the force.
Secondly, our command, reporting and governance will be improved:
- by strengthening command and governance arrangements within and of Special Operations Command;
- by revising the Australian Defence Force’s model of command and control arrangements of Special Operations within coalition operations;
- by enhancing the record of action for Special Forces patrol operations through the use of digital technology;
- by improving the capacity, continuity and independence of review and inquiry processes on operations; and
- by strengthening the Inspector-General’s role in operational oversight.
Thirdly, with regard to individual and collective accountability:
Individuals alleged of unlawful criminal conduct will be referred to the Office of the Special Investigator.
Individuals alleged to be negligent in the performance of their duty will be managed through administrative and disciplinary processes.
Where decisions were made in good faith, individuals and the force more generally must learn from this experience, and we will embed this training into our development and education system.
As proposed in the report, I will review and make recommendation to the Governor-General with regard to the honours and awards received by a range of officers both in Australia and Afghanistan.
Units live and fight as a team. The report acknowledges, therefore, that there is also a collective responsibility for what is alleged to have happened.
With this in mind, I have accepted the Inspector-General’s recommendation and will write to the Governor-General requesting he revoke the Meritorious Unit Citation for Special Operations Task Groups who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013.
Separately, the Chief of Army will today also announce changes to the Army’s Order of Battle – that is, its organisational structure.
While necessary, I appreciate that these latter decisions will be a bitter blow for many.
The report includes some very recent lines of inquiry, only partially considered by Justice Brereton’s team. If anyone has any new or additional information, I strongly encourage them to bring it to the attention of the Office of the Special Investigator once established. In the meantime, please pass it forward to the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force.
A redacted form of the Inquiry report will shortly be available. To ensure the procedural fairness of potential future investigations and possible court proceedings I cannot, however, release Part 2 of the report, which deals with specific incidents and individuals.
In conclusion, I thank the Inspector-General, Mr Jim Gaynor, and Justice Paul Brereton and his team, for your comprehensive and tireless efforts in bringing together the Afghanistan Inquiry. I also acknowledge Professor David Whetham for his important contribution to the Inquiry’s consideration of systemic factors.
And I thank everyone who has come forward to speak to the Inquiry. Your contribution will help make us a better force.
I would also like to acknowledge the work of Dr Samantha Crompvoets who first brought this issue to higher command attention, Major General Jeff Sengelman who had the moral courage to confront it, and Mr David Irvine who’s been assisting us with Special Forces reform.
I know this Inquiry has taken a considerable toll on our people and their families. We will continue to support those affected, and I encourage anyone who needs to seek assistance.
I again acknowledge and thank those many thousands of Australians who served in Afghanistan and did the right thing – professionally and with honour. And this includes many, many of our Special Forces personnel. You did extraordinary work.
The actions of some do not represent the integrity and value of your service. You should be rightly proud of your contribution to our nation’s history.
Today marks an important but difficult step forward for the Australian Defence Force and our people.
Thank you for your continued service to this great nation – ethically, lawfully and in a manner that speaks to our lived values of service, courage, integrity, respect and excellence
Thank you ladies and gentlemen. I’ll now take questions.
JOURNALIST: Did you expect this report to be this bad and, secondly, what is the future of the Special Forces in this country, the SAS and Commandos? Will, for example, they be disbanded, merged, what is their future?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: When the rumours were first raised with me late in 2015 I had the sense that there was something here, but I never expected to read some of the material that I have reviewed over the last two weeks of allegations with regard to behaviour of modern, professional Australian military personnel.
The Special Operations capability is an incredible national asset, but part of it has, by allegation, performed in a way of grave concern to us. There is an enormous amount of effort and it has been going on now for five years and will continue at scale, to see that capability returned to what I remember it to be – a magnificent capability across the board. Today it is extraordinary but not whole, and it must be made whole again, and that’s what we’re going to do.
JOURNALIST: How can it be conceivable for many members of the defence force to know about it but that no commander, person in a higher authority, was able to put an end to this practice when it was discovered? And do you believe that we will uncover more war crimes in years to come?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: Andrew, to answer your second question first, as I noted, there are some more recent lines of inquiry that Justice Brereton could not fully deal with. And what we’ve seen previously when there has been periods of significant media or public attention to this issue is additional people coming forward. Rather than assume, I simply strongly encourage people to do so if there’s anything that they feel that they wish to raise with the Special Investigator.
And in terms of knowing, I think Justice Brereton indicates in his report quite an effort to ensure people did not know, which is in itself a damning statement for command at many levels.
JOURNALIST: The report says that there are 39 people that have been unlawfully killed and in some cases it calls for immediate compensation that would be provided before any possible criminal prosecution is finalised. How much money are you planning to give these families after their relatives were killed for no good reason?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: That’s going to be something that we will work with both the wider governments here in Australia and also the Afghan governments and elements of Afghan community to determine. But I very much support Justice Brereton’s recommendation.
JOURNALIST: Justice Brereton found that commanders beared command and moral responsibility for what occurred. How many commanders do you assess bear that responsibility, and what will happen to them?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I’m now going to work through that exact question. And it is complex. But he points to a number, and I will be dealing with that in cooperation with the Chief of the Army. I am very concerned that these matters arose. They are incredibly damaging to an organisation and to the future of an organisation like the Australian Defence Force. And I have no hesitation in walking this process and dealing with issues and people as is required. But they will be dealt with fairly.
JOURNALIST: What should happen to them, though? Should they be busted out of the Army or just disciplined? What do you suggest?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I am leaving all options on the table, and I want to work through the issue case-by-case.
JOURNALIST: To what extent do you think the number of deployments that SAS personnel went on contributed to the culture that’s been described in the report, and is that something you’re going to look closely at?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I am. This is an issue that I think will have quite a bit of discussion both in the general public, in the informed commentariat and within professional military circles - the question of the period of rotation and the period of dwell between rotations. Justice Brereton indicates that it is a factor but he does not attribute it to be a significant factor. Now, I think there’s a great deal of work to do. One of his recommendations is to actually try as academically or scientifically as possible to try to better determine what is that right dwell time. But it was an element amongst many at play here.
JOURNALIST: There’s a big reference to the warrior culture. Can you elaborate for us on the difference between that corrosive culture and what has been seen as the elite military Special Forces culture? Can you elaborate on how that corrosive element was able to have its impact?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: By “warrior culture”, Justice Brereton is I think speaking to a slow deviation from normal and good culture in a military environment. Where instead of seeking to serve others you seek to serve yourself and to do so in a manner that creates power and authority and prestige. It’s destructive because you’re no longer looking at the mission that we’re all there to work together to achieve. And it must be stamped out. It is absolutely antithetical not just to Special Operations but to professional military forces and absolutely to the Australian Defence Force.
JOURNALIST: Any word for the operators, particularly from SASR, who called this out?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: Yes. I am deeply appreciative of people who came forward to speak with concern of what they had seen, in some cases of what they had participated in, but overall speaking because they did not believe that this was reflective of the Regiment that they understood they had joined and that they had committed their life in service to our nation.
Now I really appreciate what they have done, and I think that they deserve praise and acknowledgement. And it was a very brave thing for them to do, because in the climate and the culture I have described, they would have been very concerned for doing so. So thank you.
JOURNALIST: You spoke before about individuals who did not bear criminal responsibility but were negligent. I was wondering if you could set out exactly what will happen to members and former members of the ADF who are found to be negligent in these matters?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: So following on from a previous and similar question, I will look at them case-by-case working with the Chief of Army and dealing with our administrative and disciplinary processes to understand their part in this story and their degree of accountability and what actions should be taken against them if indeed action should be taken.
JOURNALIST: It might sound like an obvious question, but you also mentioned decisions taken in good faith, and there will just be education for those members. Is there a fine line between decisions taken in good faith and negligent decisions? What’s the difference there?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: The difference here I’m speaking of is where with all of the information available to you and with an active and curious engagement in your command when you make decisions in that circumstance, they’re being made on good faith. And I acknowledge that and want to nevertheless strengthen and improve the force. If that’s not the case, then I ask the question: Why not?
JOURNALIST: General, the report details practices of embellishing information and sometimes fabricating information in reports in a general sense, even aside from some of these atrocious incidents. And I wonder how concerned you are that that practice goes beyond Special Forces and to the wider defence force on operations? A number of us here have read incident reports that don’t appear to reflect the versions of events that witnesses give. Are you concerned it is a broader practice, and what are you going to do about that and isn’t there a risk that this will be seen to just be about the Special Forces and not applicable to anyone else?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I don’t think this is just about Special Forces and Special Operations Command. If the entire Australian Defence Force does not learn from it and strengthen all of the aspects of areas of our operational capability that I have described, we’re not preparing ourselves to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Now in Special Operations, Justice Brereton is clear with regard to embellishing or modifying or slimming down reporting. That’s completely unacceptable. I don’t see it and have not seen it as a norm, indeed, as a variation, within wider operational reporting. I would note that every single person involved in some form of combat sees that situation through a very unique and individual lens. So sometimes that is at play. But I want the entire defence force to learn, to think, to reflect and say, “I will not go there.”
JOURNALIST: The report talks about Australia losing its moral authority and the fact that all of Australia is diminished by that. Can you reflect on how damaging that is to Australia’s reputation and the reputation of the troops that you lead? And given the culture and the alleged crimes – murdering children allegedly – shouldn’t the SAS be shut down? There will be a lot of Australians who think that this is a line that is simply, you know, it’s beyond reproach, really.
GENERAL CAMPBELL: The report speaks to the unlawful killing of men in Afghanistan, some adolescent men. And it is material, as I said earlier, I would never have conceived that an Australian would be doing this in the modern era. And I thought we had the processes and the governance systems and the development systems for our people that it would not occur. That is one of the most damaging aspects of this report – that it shows us not as the force at a level of professionalism that we thought ourselves to be. And it does undermine the defence force’s moral authority.
Could I say, though, Australia’s approach to dealing with this, both by listening to our soldiers, enacting an independent inquiry process and the appointment by the Government of a Special Investigator and an Implementation Oversight Panel, that I think gives many people and I hope many of our international counterparts comfort that we are a nation that stands up when something’s gone wrong and deals with it. And that’s exactly what I intend to be part of. We’re going to deal with it.
JOURNALIST: General, can you tell us how you think this could be used against Australia by organisations such as terror groups that might seek to amplify it for recruitment propaganda?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I don’t want to, myself, be part of that amplification in what I offer to you. But clearly what has happened and the need and the appropriate necessity of seeing this made public does potentially create fuel. And it’s a truth or at least an allegation of a truth that we must face up to. And, hence, we need to be alert and just be aware of our circumstances depending on where people are in the world.
JOURNALIST: Of the 25 soldiers complicit in the murders of Afghans, how many of them are still serving in the military today and what is going to happen to them immediately? And secondly, you were a commander in the Middle East during part of the period this report covers. Obviously the report exonerates people further up the chain-of-command in positions like yourself, but do you feel any sort of personal sort of things, any regrets, anything that in hindsight you go, “Geez, I wish I had done something about that back then,” or anything like that?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: With regard to that latter part of your question, I think there are many, many people at all sorts of levels across the Defence Force involved in operations in Afghanistan or in support of those operations who do wonder what didn’t they see, what did they walk past, what did they not appreciate they could have done to prevent this? And I think it will carry in the consciousness of perhaps a generation. And I think that that’s something that we all need to deal with.
Your earlier question, your first question?
JOURNALIST: The 25 soldiers complicit in the murders of Afghans, are any of them still serving and what will happen if they are?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: They are. Some of them continue to serve in different forms of service within the defence force. I’ve directed the Chief of Army to on a case-by-case basis review the circumstance and nature of that service. And he will be doing that immediately.
JOURNALIST: Obviously there’s been talk about these cultural problems in the SAS for quite a time and action has been taken, I think, already on some of these fronts. How would you describe the culture in the SAS, especially at the senior levels, at this instant?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I visited our Special Air Services Regiment a couple of weeks ago, and indeed the Chief of the Army is there now. I see and seriously see incredible commitment and an appreciation of the pain and hurt that these allegations, this inquiry and this stain brings not just to the regiment but to Australia. So I have no doubt of the determination by that leadership community to return to a status in which that entire organisation is a magnificent and finely developed instrument of national capability. They have work to do, and that work will take time, but I know they are determined to do it.
JOURNALIST: And their new leaders?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: Very impressive and, similarly –
JOURNALIST: Not the leaders, but for them?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: Sure, we have been very carefully looking at that leadership development and continuity of direction. There will be no hesitation, and if I see any such hesitation there will be changes made. This must be dealt with, and it’s going to be dealt with.
JOURNALIST: What do you say to the many Afghan families who say their family members were unlawfully killed?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I am sincerely sorry for their loss and I can’t imagine the pain, the suffering and the uncertainty that that loss has caused both at the time and that continuing uncertainty of how this happened. And my sincere apologies to them and a desire to find a way to make recompense.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned earlier possible changes to the Order of Battle. Are you stating clearly now that units may be disbanded? And earlier there was reference that Justice Brereton’s recommendations around people who spoke up. What can you do to protect those people who are still serving that spoke up?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: The Chief of the Army, General Burr, is working to assist and support those who are concerned with regard to their contribution to the inquiry, but more importantly, to emphasise to everybody involved and to the units across the Army that we have absolutely no tolerance for the kind of intimidation or discrediting that the report speaks to occurring during the operation. Absolutely none.
With regard to the Army’s Order of Battle – that’s the organisational structure of the Army – a short while ago the Chief of the Army advised the Special Air Service Regiment that the 2nd Special Air Service Squadron would be struck off the Army ORBAT, not because it was the only squadron involved in these issues but because it was at a time one of the squadrons involved in the allegations made. And there will be a permanent record by striking that squadron title from the Army ORBAT at this period. The Chief of the Army will work over time to adjust and then re-raise a different squadron titled differently. And in combination with a recommendation I’ll make to the Governor-General with regard in the revocation of the Meritorious Unit Citation, these are actions that deal with a collective accountability that will not be forgotten and the circumstances arising to lead to these outcomes will not be forgotten.
JOURNALIST: Given the fabrications of reports that have been discovered, do you have concerns about some of the citations for the gallantry awards that have been made for combat operations? And secondly, the report recommends a review of the Distinguished Service Awards, I believe. How many Distinguished Service Medals are under a cloud as well?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: So Justice Brereton mentioned a recommendation to review awards, in particular, to officers but not exclusively, with regard to meritorious, distinguished or conspicuous service. That will happen. I don’t know right now what that total number of reviews will be. It will be what is required to deal with the issue.
In terms of your earlier question related to awards incidentally in valour or gallantry or bravery, those are matters that should be dealt with appropriately after any further processes or proceedings are concluded, and that’s the way we’ll be approaching that.
JOURNALIST: As this Inquiry has continued and there’s some indications of what’s included in the Inquiry report, there have been echoes of occasions when on operations or in Perth, individuals have actually stood up and tried to call out this behaviour or modify it. And in many cases they’ve been very harshly treated, and quite possibly their careers have been destroyed. How do you actually stop that sort of thing happening in an organisation that relies on small units and must give a high level of control to the small unit commanders?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: The incidents you’re speaking of are a disgrace and a discredit to all involved. And we can work energetically on the culture, but that requires individuals to embrace it. I would just say to everybody and anybody, if you have a concern, raise it. And we are determined to learn from this past and make sure that someone who does speak up doesn’t suffer the experience of others before them. And I’m deeply committed to that.
JOURNALIST: The Afghanistan war was Australia’s longest war. Now we see a country which is still in ruined in large part, they’re negotiating with the Taliban. What was achieved by this?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: Chris, if I ask my people and our veterans, there’s a great deal of pride in what was achieved, and I think it’s important to think about this from the point of view of seeking to give the Afghan people and the security force and the Government of the day an opportunity to find their path forward. And that’s what we did. And I think that’s a good and honourable thing. What they are now doing is entering into a process of negotiation to seek to end the wars that have ravaged their country for many, many years. And I wish them the very best in that process.
JOURNALIST: What did General Zia of Afghanistan say to you when you phoned him? And also, the second question is: The report says the extent of the repeated deployment of the small pool of Special Forces was a contributing factor. It was not a risk that the government of the day of either persuasion politically was ever alerted to and the responsibility lies with the ADF because the governments were briefed that the task was manageable. Was there any point where the ADF should have said to governments that, “Look, there is strain here,” or was the information provided at every point accurate?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: First with regard to my conversation with General Zia, the Chief of Staff of the Afghan Army, he was very gracious – indeed, incredibly gracious. He expressed sorrow for the loss and an appreciation that we would engage with him and with Afghanistan and we would deal with this in a thorough and determined way and that we would wish to make sure it was known and then that we would look to support the circumstances of families affected. And, I must say, I was humbled and deeply appreciative of the manner in which he received this news.
With regard to the second part of your question about the issue of the use of Special Operations, I think here you see a combination of both reporting that is speaking positively and not necessarily as accurately as frank and fearless advice should be, and a misappreciation perhaps that progressively the wearing down of organisations because of the long war was occurring. Remember, this was a war that was occurring to a degree a year at a time progressing towards the aspiration of a resolution and an establishment of an effective Afghan security force and Afghan government.
And looking backwards, you can see how we used and used and used some more and how we saw the reporting consistently positive and indeed extraordinary in the things that we achieved and the things that people did, but that dark aspect and the strains being washed away or being not flagged and emphasised. Managed absolutely, but I don’t think the degree of strain was appreciated.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask you about one specific report in here, one that is very much totally blanked out. And it’s described as possibly the most disgraceful incident in Australia’s military history. Could I ask: Are you aware of the particulars of that particular incident, and why out of all these incidents that one is of the few that is totally redacted [indistinct]?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I can’t speak to the particular circumstances. That’s why it’s redacted. But Justice Brereton does describe something that is utterly disgraceful. And it’s right that it needs legally to be redacted. In time, in the time of history to be written, it is shameful.
JOURNALIST: I wonder if you could speak to the international implications of this report for the relationship between our special forces and their special forces in UK and America with whom they operated quite closely in Afghanistan?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: Justice Brereton is looking at Australian military performance within our Special Operations Command and these allegations of misconduct. I have engaged with a very wide range of international counterparts and written to a great many more about it. I intend that we share and we engage that what we are doing learning and how we think this unfolded is known that it may support others.
It is something that can have an effect on international relationships between militaries and indeed between nations if you don’t deal with it properly. We’re determined to deal with it properly. And I think in doing so there’s a degree of recognition of that. I’m not going to speak to the circumstances of other nations or other military forces; I think they appropriately should be addressed to those nations, and I’m focused on the Australian Defence Force and its work and making this defence force the best force it can be. That’s what we’ve got to do, and that’s my job every day – to make it better. And I’m determined that that’s what we do.
JOURNALIST: Obviously all the names in the reports are redacted for legal reasons, but there’s an unusual situation obviously in the case of Ben Roberts-Smith who has chosen to identify himself as a target of the report and denied any wrongdoing. Is there any reason why some of those names are completely redacted in that instance, and can you confirm when you say that the Second SAS Squadron will be struck from the Army’s Order of Battle that that is Mr Ben Robert-Smith’s squadron, isn’t it?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: Thank you for your question. I’m not going to speak to any individuals. And I realise that individuals have the right to speak for themselves, but as a point of consistency both in terms of incidents and individuals and in the integrity of processes that unfold into the future, that’s going to be the position that Defence takes. No incidents, no names, nothing that in any way might undermine or discredit any process or ultimately any court proceeding.
JOURNALIST: General, you were the Commander of Task Force 633 in the Middle East in 2011. I wonder as you read this report what were your reflections in that context, and what do you say to people who might suggest that it lets people like you off the hook?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I don’t think it lets anyone off the hook. I think that we all have something both to learn and to recognise in what’s occurred here. Justice Brereton speaks to different accountabilities and so forth. But in terms of my service in the Middle East and the service of others, I look on it as both an incredibly challenging but also professionally very rewarding time. And as I said earlier, I wonder was there something I walked past, was there some indicator I didn’t see? I certainly was supported by some superb commanding officers and many senior staff who I believe and continue to believe did an outstanding job. And I thank them for that. But we all have to look at this and ask ourselves how did this happen, what did we do, what did we not see in this happening?
JOURNALIST: General Campbell, thinking about the debate ahead, I know you’ve dealt with this to some degree, but I think the public are going to be asked to believe and many soldiers are being asked to believe that in six or seven years and all those incidents no-one between a Lieutenant and a Lieutenant General had any direct knowledge of what went on. Does the Inquiry report answer that profound question?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: The Inquiry report indicates that while there is no indicator of knowledge or intent to contribute to alleged unlawful behaviours that there are aspects of the work done through the units, both in the Special Operations Task Group and in the units at home, that were supporting and providing the personnel to Afghanistan that there’s a responsibility to know, to be curious to understand what is going on in your organisation. And I think that that’s a really important factor in what he’s finding. And it is – I know, because I’ve spoken to them – very distressing for many in terms of the reflection of how they undertook their duties and what they did or didn’t understand or see or realise.
JOURNALIST: A question about compensation. You say there’s a process underway. How long will that take given some of these killings took place many years ago? Could they be expedited?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: Look, I want to just note there will be a process that needs to be developed for this. We haven’t done this in this way before. And we will seek to develop it with the other parts of government involved and, indeed, engaging with the Afghan government as quickly as possible. But it needs to be done correctly and it needs to be done in a way that allows and creates the effect that we’re seeking, which would be to support those families.
JOURNALIST: And General Campbell, what about the plight of whistleblowers and people like David McBride who leaked documents and are now facing jail for that in relation to these alleged matters? Do you still think people like him who tried to bring this to the public attention should be put in prison?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I can’t speak to issues that are at play in a current court process. I’m just not in a position to do so. I understand your concern and I appreciate that many here will speak to that issue. But I’m just not able to talk to it.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that that was a factor in helping to conceal some of these crimes, and is there a lesson in all of this to you to be more open and transparent about what our soldiers are doing [indistinct]?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I think that as we went through the campaign in Afghanistan we progressively learned how to engage and enable a greater media presence. But that’s something that we were learning as we were doing it and something that we should take from this as a lesson and an understanding of how to move forward.
JOURNALIST: General Campbell, is Major General Paul Kenny the right person to be driving the cultural change, given that he is within that organization and has been [indistinct]?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: I’ve got great confidence in General Kenny as the newly appointed Special Operations Commander Australia and of his determination and the very breadth of his experience not just in Special Operations to be able to lead this work and take up this work from General Sengelman, from General Findlay and now General Kenny. And he knows the task that is ahead of him and he is determined, and I’m very confident in the work that he’ll be doing.
JOURNALIST: How often will you be reporting to Government and also to the Australian public as you go through this process? Will you commit to regular media appearances such as this to keep the public informed?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: So I will be reporting, as I noted in my opening remarks, to the Minister on at least a quarterly basis with regard to how progressed we are with the implementation of the recommendations and findings of the Inquiry report. I will then work also to find a mechanism that enables that public scrutiny and awareness of what we’re doing. And I think that the Minister, I’m sure, will be similarly interested to make sure the public is kept informed.
JOURNALIST: To what extent is the isolation of the SAS Regiment play a part in this, and to what extent can they be pulled more comprehensively into the broader orbit of the Army?
GENERAL CAMPBELL: It may have been an element. There has over these last few years been a very clear change to the way that Special Operations Command is organised and is intergrated as a single command. And with the purpose being that no part of it is out in some degree of isolation but, rather, that they are all working as an integrated team bringing extraordinary specialised strengths together to create this unique capability for Australia.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. Could I finish by noting two things: first, to remember the extraordinary effort of so many, and my thanks to those veterans who served in Afghanistan. And also, if there’s anyone who needs or wishes to seek assistance, that assistance is available. Please reach out and please look out for each other. Thank you.