Who was responsible for that infamous “Operation Fortitude” press release, which sparked protests in Melbourne and forced the Department of Immigration and Border Protection into a humiliating backflip in August? The department is refusing to say, offering up the bizarre excuse that bureaucrats’ privacy outweighs the demonstrable public interest.

The failed Operation Fortitude at the end of August sparked a mass protest in the Melbourne CBD after the department issued a media release stating Border Force officers would take part in an operation, along with Victoria Police, Metro Trains, Yarra Trams, the Sheriff’s Office and the Taxi Services Commission, to target “everything from anti-social behaviour to outstanding warrants”.

ABF’s regional commander for Victoria and Tasmania, Don Smith, was quoted as stating ABF officers would be “positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with”.

“You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa; if you commit visa fraud, you should know it is only a matter of time before you’re caught out,” Smith was quoted as saying. As a result of the snap protest on the steps of Flinders Street Station, the operation was cancelled.

The government initially blamed the botched operation on a “badly worded” press release, approved at low levels within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, but just before the release of emails to Crikey under freedom of information, Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg and Immigration Department Secretary Michael Pezzullo took responsibility for the cock-up. They did not blame the office of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton for the incident, despite someone in his office being aware of the press release before it went out.

As Crikey first reported in October, the department censored the names of all staff in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Dutton’s office and Victoria Police from the document, except for Quaedvlieg, Pezzullo and Smith. The department declared names of officers to be not relevant to the request, despite Crikey asking for names of those who approved the release to be included.

After seeking a review of this decision, the department decided instead that the names could not be released because it would be an invasion of privacy for staff involved and would place them at risk.

“The heightened level of media attention and criticism associated with [Operation Fortitude], coupled with the allegation that the department mishandled the media release at issue, means the privacy of the non-SES officers could reasonably be expected to be interfered with if they were identified in the documents,” DIBP first assistant secretary Maree Bridger said in her decision.

It would cause these officers, including those working in Dutton’s office, to be “subject to personal attack or public backlash as a result of their involvement in Operation Fortitude,” Bridger said. Even the minister’s staffer who saw the release and replied “OK, thanks for letting me know,” on the day the media release went out will not be named.

“In light of the need for heightened security in the wake of terrorism threats, I am concerned with protecting the personal safety of individual junior departmental officers,” Bridger said.

Bridger noted that current DIBP practice was for the staff to not publicly identify themselves as employees of the department, and staff had been instructed to remove their security passes and cover their uniforms when leaving the department.

Ultimately, their privacy outweighed the public interest, Bridger said.

“I acknowledge that there is a public interest in the documents of the department being made available to the public. I do not consider that the public debate requires relatively junior, non-[Senior Executive Service] officers who were not ultimately responsible for the final sign-off or approval of the relevant media releases associated with Operation Fortitude to be named in association with Operation Fortitude.”