Canberra has launched an investigation into how hundreds of top-secret documents spanning five governments and dubbed The Cabinet Files ended up being sold at a second-hand furniture shop in the Australian capital.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) obtained the treasure trove of files and published a series of exclusive reports earlier this week.
Most of the documents were classified, some “top secret” and others marked “AUSTEO” (to be seen by Australian eyes only), and were meant by law to remain secret for at least two decades.
Among other things, the ABC’s revelations reportedly feature allegations that the “Australian Federal Police (AFP) lost nearly 400 national security files in five years” and that former Prime Minister John Howard’s National Security Committee (NSC) gave “serious consideration to removing an individual’s unfettered right to remain silent when questioned by police.”
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has initiated “an urgent investigation.”
The ABC said that the files were in locked cabinets purchased at a shop selling ex-government furniture. The filing cabinets were bought for “small change” and sat unopened for several months until the locks were forced with a drill.
“The documents were in two locked filing cabinets sold at an ex-government sale in Canberra. They were sold off cheaply because they were heavy and no-one could find the keys. A nifty person drilled the locks and uncovered the trove of documents inside,” the ABC reported.
“The ex-government furniture sale was not limited to Australians – anyone could make a purchase. And had they been inclined, there was nothing stopping them handing the contents to a foreign agent or government,” it added.
The cabinet files dump came under fire from security experts, but was made light of on social media.
Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, meanwhile said it was an embarrassing incident “highlighting the constant vigilance that needs to go into protecting sensitive national security information.”
“This extraordinary breach underscores the need for government agencies and ministerial offices alike to review whether their protocols for handling secret information are good enough or are being observed,” he told news.com.au.