ADF report into alleged misconduct in East Timor warned of culture issues in Special Forces, years before claims of Afghanistan war crimes

An internal Australian Defence Force report explicitly warned of a “code of silence” and a culture of cover-up in the Special Forces years before allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan emerged.

Key points:

  • A report written following investigations of alleged misconduct by Australian personnel in East Timor said the Special Forces' code of silence should be broken down
  • It expressed concern that Special Forces may be unlikely to truthfully report alleged crimes
  • The 2020 Brereton report into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan said its inquiry was “often frustrated by outright deceit”

Almost two decades later, an inquiry would blame this same culture of obfuscation and deceit for fostering what investigators say was the unlawful killing of 39 civilians and prisoners by the SAS in Afghanistan.

The initial warning about Special Forces “not telling the truth” is contained in 251 pages of reports released to ABC Investigations under Freedom of Information (FOI) by the Department of Defence.

The documents relate to allegations of ADF misconduct in East Timor in 1999. 

The allegations that were investigated include an incident involving the SAS in which two militiamen were killed in controversial circumstances, and claims of torture at a secret interrogation centre set up by the SAS and run by intelligence officers.

In April, Four Corners revealed that charges of torture were recommended against three Australian intelligence officers running the interrogation centre.

ADF report into alleged misconduct in East Timor warned of culture issues in Special Forces, years before claims of Afghanistan war crimes

The secret interrogation centre was located at Dili's heliport.(Four Corners: Kyle Taylor)

Despite briefs of evidence being drawn up, none of these officers was ever charged. 

“It was never dealt with properly,” said Karl Fehlauer, who was a member of the military police special inquiry team that investigated the East Timor allegations.

“It gave a green light for people to behave how they wanted to with impunity.”

One FOI document, titled Lessons Learned, was written in the immediate aftermath of the East Timor misconduct investigations, which wrapped up in 2003.

It warned that “the first issue of importance to come out of this matter is the code of silence which permeates elite units in the ADF” — recommending this culture be dismantled.

The redacted report of Major General Paul Brereton's inquiry into allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan, which was publicly released in 2020, made 30 references to a culture or code of silence within the Special Forces.

The inquiry found credible information of “23 incidents in which one or more non-combatants or persons hors-de-combat [out of the fight] were unlawfully killed by or at the direction of members of the Special Operations Task Group in circumstances which, if accepted by a jury, would be the war crime of murder”.

The inquiry described the Special Forces as “a secretive and clandestine organisation in which there is a powerful code of silence”.

The Lessons Learned report about East Timor written years earlier warned that measures should be adopted to “break down” the Special Forces' code of silence.

“The concerning feature is that if more serious crimes are committed in the future then members of the ADF may be unlikely to report such matters,” the report stated.

“It is submitted there is a culture in ADF Special Forces of not telling the truth in such matters.”

Mr Fehlauer said he believed SAS witnesses would have been coached before being interviewed about allegations of misconduct in East Timor.

“I honestly believe that prior to coming over for the interviews with us, [the SAS witnesses] would have all been taken into rooms and been fully briefed either by their own people or by legal officers working for the SAS and told what to say and how to say it and how to behave in an interview,” he said.

ADF report into alleged misconduct in East Timor warned of culture issues in Special Forces, years before claims of Afghanistan war crimes

Former miliary police investigator Karl Fehlauer says no Australian soldiers were held accountable for alleged misconduct in East Timor, contributing to a culture of impunity.(ABC Four Corners: Dave Maguire)

The 2020 Brereton report noted that its inquiry into Afghanistan war crimes was “often frustrated by outright deceit” and by “misguided loyalty [to the Special Forces] that placed relationships and reputation above truth and morality”.

“I mean, it only took 20 years, but it finally came back because you've got to remember, a lot of those senior people involved in Afghanistan were all young troopers in East Timor.”

Among the incidents and allegations contained within the Lessons Learned report was the shooting of two unarmed civilians on a motorcycle by Australian SAS soldiers in East Timor on October 19, 1999.

The two riders fled leaving a trail of blood, with one reportedly later dying of his wounds.

A search of the vicinity found no weapon, only a bag of rice.

A New Zealand SAS soldier at the scene described an Australian SAS trooper “panicking” after the shooting and having to be told to stay calm.

The Lessons Learned report says the shooting was “deliberately omitted from the [SAS] patrol report”.

A witness statement obtained by ABC Investigations reveals that a New Zealand SAS member who was at the scene of the shooting — codenamed Soldier E – later read the Australian patrol report and described it as “pure rubbish”.

“I am of the opinion that the Australians structured the report in such a way to justify their actions,” he said.

The Lessons Learned document says the then-Commander of Special Operations was “of the view that charges should not be laid” over the false report, and that counselling was sufficient.

The Brereton inquiry later found that Special Forces operational reporting in Afghanistan “was routinely embellished, and sometimes outright fabricated”.

In its reasons for releasing the Lessons Learned document to ABC Investigations, Defence “noted the significant importance of this document within the historical context of ADF operations and that of the Commonwealth of Australia”.

“I have also reflected on the ongoing and significant public interest within the current allegations of war crimes stemming from within the Afghanistan campaign and how this document would significantly increase public debate,” the Defence FOI decision-maker said.

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ADF report into alleged misconduct in East Timor warned of culture issues in Special Forces, years before claims of Afghanistan war crimes

Ghosts of Timor (Part one).

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

ADF report into alleged misconduct in East Timor warned of culture issues in Special Forces, years before claims of Afghanistan war crimes

Ghosts of Timor (Part two).

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