Defence Force chief Angus Campbell has defended his efforts to strip military awards from some Afghanistan war commanders as a furious Senator Jacqui Lambie threatened to disrupt Senate proceedings for a fortnight unless she is given more information about the process.
Tempers flared at Senate estimates hearings on Tuesday, with the Defence chief accusing Lambie and other critics of behaving like sharks by pursuing the question of how many current and former service personnel may lose their honours.
Campbell confirmed he had recently sent letters to current and former defence force personnel to inform them their honours for distinguished and conspicuous service may be cancelled but he refused to provide the exact number.
“I know that not only yourself but a range of other interested parties and the media are circling around this issue like great whites in a feeding frenzy,” Campbell told Lambie.
“I would wish to decline to tell you the number so as to mitigate the enthusiasm with which these people are hunted down by the media looking for spectacle.
“It is a small number of persons who held command appointments during particular periods of operational service in Afghanistan.”
Lambie said she believed Campbell had sent 24 such letters in recent months, but the defence chief said he did not agree with this number.
Campbell said it would ultimately be up to Defence Minister Richard Marles to decide whether any military honours should be cancelled, adding that the Brereton inquiry into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan had recommended a review of military honours.
Lambie questioned why Campbell himself had not been stripped of medals given he oversaw Australian troops in Afghanistan while some alleged war crimes were committed.
“Where is your command accountability?” she asked, saying he had “hung out to dry” those beneath him.
Lambie, who served in the army for almost 10 years before entering politics, has previously called for Campbell to resign over the medals issue. She has accusing him of making a scapegoat of more junior officers who have not been found guilty of a crime.
She said on Tuesday she would stop the Senate working “every hour for two weeks straight” unless the government provides her with redacted copies of the letters Campbell has sent to former commanders.
“I’m going to fight you every single step of the way,” she said.
Veterans groups, including the Special Air Service Association, have suggested Campbell should consider handing back his Distinguished Service Cross as a sign of leadership.
Campbell said his honours had been reviewed in the same way as any other commander during the relevant period and stressed that the removal of any medals did not mean the commanders had committed any crimes.
Meanwhile, a judgment will be handed down on Thursday in decorated former soldier Ben Roberts-Smith’s defamation case against and over articles he said wrongly accused him of war crimes, bullying a fellow soldier, and an act of domestic violence against a former lover.
The papers have defended their reporting as truthful, alleging that Roberts-Smith was involved in the murder of five unarmed prisoners while on deployment in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2012.
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