Ben Roberts-Smith (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

Ben Roberts-Smith allegedly “wandered off whenever he wanted and did whatever he wanted” in Afghanistan, the Federal Court heard this morning, as the former soldier’s defamation case against media organisations continues.  

This allegation was contained within a letter to Roberts-Smith from a colleague who had been questioned during an official inquiry into allegations of ADF war crimes in Afghanistan. Roberts-Smith emphatically denies it. 

The Victoria Cross winner is back in the witness stand as the hearing continues through a long, tortuous cross-examination. 

These sparring versions of events bring to mind the “Rashomon effect”, named for Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, wherein various people witness an incident and give wildly different accounts of the same incident.  

So it is with this hearing, where Roberts-Smith is suing three newspapers — The Sydney Morning HeraldThe Age and The Canberra Times — and three journalists for defamation, over a series of stories that suggested he was involved in war crimes while deployed with special forces in Afghanistan. He denies all allegations. The organisations are chiefly relying on a truth defence.

The two sides of the action are currently arguing over a series of USBs, sent to Roberts-Smith in the mail from an anonymous source, containing photos and video footage of the ADF in Afghanistan.

Nicholas Owens SC, representing the media bodies, is putting to Roberts-Smith that these USBs contain highly classified drone footage of a Taliban compound nicknamed “Whisky 108”. Roberts-Smith agreed that it was wrong to keep this information at his house, but denied the footage could imperil Australia’s security. The videos only contain footage of buildings, he said. 

Each side has also been crossing swords about a series of letters between Roberts-Smith and former ADF colleagues containing confidential information about their testimonies to the war crimes inquiry, which is being conducted by the inspector-general of the ADF. Divulging this information is illegal. 

Roberts-Smith described them as simple letters of complaint about how he and his comrades were treated. He flatly denied the letters were designed to pass on information about the inquiry, and allow the men to coordinate evidence or testimony, he said. 

Other disputed actions brought up in court include the burning of a laptop. Why did Roberts-Smith destroy a laptop by dousing it with petrol and setting it alight? He said he did this routinely in order to protect his passwords and other sensitive information. 

Could the reason have been concern about an Australian Federal Police investigation into his conduct in Afghanistan? Absolutely not, he said.

And why did Roberts-Smith ask former Australia Post employee Danielle Scott, a friend of his ex-wife, whether postage stamps could be traced? He said it was an attempt to identify the author of an anonymous letter that he suspected had come from a former mistress.

Was it part of a plan to send threatening letters to fellow soldiers he thought might give evidence against him at the inspector-general’s inquiry? Absolutely not, he said. 

And why did Roberts-Smith meet twice with former AFP commissioner Mick Keelty; did they discuss the inquiry? That was not the case, he claimed. 

Did Keelty tell Roberts-Smith that he “couldn’t meet with [him] any more” because the AFP had an “open investigation” into the former soldier”? No, he said.

Owens is taking the former soldier through a series of actions which, on the face of it, look prejudicial. Is there an explanation for his actions which actually makes sense? This cross-examination is teasing out those details, looking for the weak spots. 

The hearing continues