SECRET SOLDIER SPIES, SO WHAT?
By Sasha Uzunov
The revelation that elite Australian Special Forces soldiers are being used in an unconventional role as spies in parts of Africa should be applauded not criticised.
A report in Melbourne newspaper The Age by Rafael “Roadblock” Epstein and Dylan Welch, titled “Secret SAS squadron sent to spy in Africa, March 13, 2012,
creates an atmosphere of scaremongering with the usual suspects, self-appointed expert and ex-The Age journalist Hugh White, throwing his two cents worth about how bad the idea is.
The Age's in-house media tough guy Tim Lester of Timor Leste fame has also jumped on the bandwagon:
The unit known as 4 Squadron SASR has deployed plain clothed soldiers in parts of Africa on intelligence gathering missions, namely focusing on possible kidnapping of Australian citizens or Islamic fundamentalist activity.
This is in stark contrast to the Australian Federal ALP government's passivity that saw Australian backpacker David Wilson kidnapped and murdered by Khmer Rouge guerillas in Cambodia in 1994. No doubt if 4 Squadron was around then, Wilson may have had a fighting chance. In fact, both of Australia's spy agencies ASIO and ASIS are a running joke. It is probably a good idea that we have 4 Squardon.
But for some of us The Age article sounds more of a cynical exercise in carving up the lucrative SASR book industry. Surprisingly, News Limited's Defence reporter Ian McPhedran was beaten to the punch by Epstein and Welch on this story. McPhedran is seen as an unofficial member of the SASR. There was a running joke in Canberra that a high ranking Australian Army officer wanted to send McPhedran an SASR sand coloured beret in the mail as a sarcastic joke but was talked out of it by wiser and calmer subordinates.
The Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) or SAS is one of the Australian Army elite units and a major part of Special Operations Command. Together with 1st and 2nd Commando Regiments forms the backbone of counter-terrorism in Australia and front-line combat missions in Afghanistan.
Over the past 20 years a number of best-selling books about the SASR and its British parent SAS have been written and a genre of its own has developed.
Heaven forbid should Epstein, Welch or for that matter Lester ever be kidnapped overseas by the bad guys and there are no SASR soldiers to rescue them. Perhaps that would be hubris.
Let us take Rafael “Roadblock” Epstein, who as a journalist has employed “unconventional methods” to get the story but the SASR are not allowed to be used outside the box:
In an earlier article for www.scoop.co.nz , I detailed a scandal that never was involving Australian Commandos in Afghanistan, which was pursued by Epstein:
There is a public perception that journalists have become a law onto themselves that is they have a special media sheriff’s badge they can flash, whilst the rest of us cannot even ask a question.
Rafael Epstein, former ABC TV reporter and now with Fairfax. In 2010, the taxpayer funded journalist got up to some shenanigans and tied up valuable court time:
“Victoria Police will not prosecute a former ABC journalist accused of breaching police roadblocks after the Black Saturday bushfires.
“Rafael Epstein and a cameraman were stopped by officers in the main street of Kinglake on February 24 last year.
“Mr Epstein, who now works at The Age, admitted to deliberately entering an area restricted by the coroner. Mr Epstein's lawyers and the Office of Public Prosecutions agreed charges would not proceed, no conviction be recorded and that the matter would be dealt with through the Magistrates Court diversion program.
“Under diversion, Mr Epstein donated $2000 to Strathewen Primary School and admitted wrongdoing. He said: ''I apologise to local residents and police. I do wish to stress that my intention was to provide constructive and responsible coverage.''
You can bet your bottom dollar that if a teenage citizen journalist shooting a news clip about the bushfires for you-tube would have had the book thrown at them.
Now for Hugh White, a “Defence expert” who has never served in uniform but spent some time as a desk bound spook for the Office of National Assessments, the Australian Prime Minister's own spy agency.
Again, drawing on scoop.co.nz article
White, a former Fairfax newspaper journalist turned defence expert, came up with the “brilliant idea” of cutting back our front-line combat troops, such as infantry, in the mid 1990s. When the East Timor crisis erupted in late 1999 the Australian Army did not have enough infantry “gunslingers” and was forced to cannibalise reserve units for soldiers.
In 1998 the then Chief of Australia's Army Lieutenant General Frank Hickling was so concerned that our army was run down at the hands of Dibb-White that he issued his famous back to basics directive ordering all soldiers sharpen up their war fighting skills. A year later his move had potentially saved the lives of many young Australian soldiers engaged in a conflict with pro-Indonesian militia in East Timor. General Hickling had to fight off opposition from some of Canberra's desk warriors and self-appointed experts who "knew better."
Now all of a sudden White expresses concerns for SASR soldiers in spy missions:
''Such an operation deprives the soldier of a whole lot of protections, including their legal status and, in a sense, their identity as a soldier. I think governments should think extremely carefully before they ask soldiers to do that.''
Yet, back in 1990-91 and even to this day White has never expressed any concern for the Australian Navy sailors suffering from Gulf War Syndrome from the first Iraq War which he had a hand in sending, as I revealed in my article for the Herald Sun newspaper in 2007:
In fact, The Age newspaper for reasons that remain a mystery have refused to scrutinise White's record as a “defence expert.”
Once again from the scoop.co.nz archives we hear about Tim Lester's exploits:
In 2008 Lester, as a reporter with the commercial network Nine, complained the ADF would not be his taxpayer funded cab service in Iraq to observe Australian troops pulling out. He moaned:
“I am one of the reporters who wanted the necessary transport and protection to cover our 550 combat troops as they leave Tallil Air Base in Southern Iraq.”
But surely the great Tim Lester of Timor Leste fame would not need ADF transport and protection to navigate through a warzone in Iraq?
Britain’s top war reporter Sir Max Hastings, in his autobiographical account of his career, Going to The Wars, tells of taking a private taxi to the Golan Heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War that pitted Israel against its Arab neighbours and of driving with a colleague into the Sinai desert, after not receiving any assistance from the Israeli government.
The Australian media have a moral obligation to keep tabs on the military, the intelligence agencies as well governments. But we can only have an informed defence debate when we allow many voices, not just an elite few who have hijacked the debate for their own purposes.
We need to remind our information gatekeepers that Australia's defence debate belongs to the Australian taxpayer and is not the personal property of a handful to make money out of books, or push their own political agendas.