The United States issued a remarkable warning it may need to suspend co-operation with some Australian military units because of concerns their members had been involved in war crimes in Afghanistan, the nation’s top military officer has revealed.
Australian Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell said he received a letter in March 2021 from the US defence attaché in Canberra warning the Brereton report could trigger a law that prevents the US military working with units linked to “gross violations of human rights”.
A soldier accused of wrongdoing in the report was subsequently told by the then head of army that this threshold had been met and the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) was being treated as a proscribed unit under the so-called “Leahy law”.
The Brereton report, released in November 2020, found “credible” evidence of allegations that 25 Australian soldiers had murdered 39 Afghan civilians, and pointed to a disturbing “warrior culture” that had developed within elements of the special forces.
Campbell suggested under fiery questioning on Wednesday that US military co-operation with SASR may have been disrupted for up to a year as the Australian Defence Force tried to remediate the issues with the unit.
“There was a precautionary period where we looked to our arrangements,” Campbell said, asking for more time to confirm what restrictions applied and how long they were in place for.
Campbell told the Senate estimates committee that one SASR soldier had been reassigned from the regiment to help ease the US concerns about violations of the “Leahy law”.
and have sighted the letter from former army chief Rick Burr to the soldier informing him of his new duties and detailing why the change was required.
Burr said in the letter that the “credible information” of potential human rights violations contained in the Brereton report “meets the US Leahy Law threshold and has subsequently triggered the treatment of the SASR as a unit for the purpose of the law”.
Campbell said he believed it would be “reasonable” for a casual reader of the report to think it placed the SASR’s co-operation with the US military into doubt because of the Leahy law requirements.
Campbell initially stunned senators by saying he did not inform the then defence minister about the warning from Australia’s most important military ally, but later corrected the record to say he had informed the minister.
Linda Reynolds was defence minister until the end of March 2021, when she was succeeded by Peter Dutton.
Campbell said he continued to brief the minister on the matter until the “conclusion of the issue” in March 2022.
Senator Jacqui Lambie, who served for almost a decade in the army, expressed amazement at the idea Campbell would not have informed the defence minister, saying: “It’s a pretty big matter.”
Asked whether the current defence minister Richard Marles knew about the warning, Campbell said: “No, he does not know what I am telling you here, senator.”
Greens senator David Shoebridge said he was stunned by Campbell’s inability to respond in real time with details about any suspension of co-operation between Australia and the US following the letter given “few more high-profile or concerning issues could cross your desk”.
“When our major ally has advised our chief of defence that they won’t work with a key unit of the Australian military and you won’t tell us for how long that restriction lasted or what the nature of that restriction was, we have significant problem,” Shoebridge said.
A spokeswoman for Defence Minister Richard Marles confirmed he had not been briefed on the matter.
“Given there are serious privacy issues, it would be inappropriate to comment further,” the spokeswoman said.
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