Prime Minister Julia Gillard has ordered the Defence Department to establish an extraordinary election-period taskforce to examine the impact of the WikiLeaks Afghan War Diary on the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

The story, first broken here in Crikey on Monday, that the leaked reports describe activities by Australian troops in the central Afghan province of Uruzgan as part of the Reconstruction Task Force, includes descriptions of fire-fights with insurgents, attacks by suicide bombers, missing weaponry and civilian casualties including children.

Under the heading ‘Leaked documents suggest cover-up of Afghan killing’, Dan Oakes from The Age newspaper is reporting on a discrepancy between the leaked report of an incident in December 2008 and the official statement on the same event from Defence chief Angus Houston. According to the US report, the man the soldiers shot was a local policeman, a fact not mentioned by Houston in his public statement on the event.

As well as troop activity in Afghanistan, the leaked reports provide valuable insights into the operation of Australia’s defence community, with one secret cable in April 2007 informing the Americans five days before the Australian public where informed that the government was doubling troop numbers in the troubled region.

The taskforce will examine the 91,000 leaked US reports and identify what action, “if any”, needs to be taken by the ADF. The taskforce will most likely investigate the reports highlighted in Crikey on Monday, including how Australian marked weapons came to be found in an enemy weapons cache, has troop safety been compromised and whether there have been any cover ups of civilian deaths.

Other Coalition of the Willing countries to (so far) launch investigations into the biggest leak in intelligence history include the UK, the US, Germany and the Netherlands. As nations begin a new round of soul searching, two bright spots for Australia are the relatively minor role our troops have so far played in the saga (no doubt due to their professionalism and quality training) and that the leak, despite the involvement of Australian-born Wikileaks director Julian Assange, did not result from a security breach in Australia. Had the leak originated here, the effects on our defence community would have been disastrous and reminiscent of the 1970s when Australian intelligence forces were so compromised by security leaks that the United States withdrew information sharing privileges.

Under the election-period caretaker conventions of the Australian parliament, the taskforce will report its findings to Gillard and Tony Abbott. However, the public will probably never see the contents of the report. Until the next leak, of course.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey