ACT News

A junior Defence staffer allegedly took home an intelligence report and posted it online

An Australian spy agency says it has no way of knowing who has obtained a "highly sensitive" report meant for our top allies after it was allegedly leaked by a junior defence bureaucrat on an online forum.

In an embarrassing security breach, a 21-year-old Department of Defence graduate allegedly managed to download a secret Defence Intelligence Organisation assessment, burn it to a disc, take it home and post it to anonymous image-sharing forum 4chan while praising Julian Assange as his hero.

Defence HQ in Canberra, where the graduate worked.
Defence HQ in Canberra, where the graduate worked. Photo: Andrew Taylor

Court documents describe the discovery of the leak as "fortuitous", occurring only when a former Defence Signals Directorate employee stumbled onto the post while browsing the website. 

The report had a marking of "Secret, 5 eyes" on each page, a reference to the intelligence alliance of Australia, the US, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand.

The DIO says it has no real way of knowing who has downloaded the report from 4chan, or what damage has been done.

Although the contents of the report is unknown, Commonwealth prosecutors allege the publication of the first two pages of the assessment disclosed details of sensitive sources, methods and targets of intelligence gathering, as well as classified aspects of relationships between Australia and strategic partners. 

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The DIO claims the leak risked serious harm to Australia's national security interests, and potentially undermined trust and reciprocal intelligence arrangements with other countries. 

It believes the document would have been exploited by foreign intelligence services or "others" if obtained.

Department of Defence graduate Michael Scerba, now 24, has been accused of leaking the information. He is currently before the ACT Supreme Court, where he has been committed for trial.

Scerba is accused of downloading the intelligence assessment from the Secret Defence Security Network and posting the first two pages of the 15-page document in October 2012. 

The first image he posted allegedly included the comment "Julian Assange is my hero". Scerba had been vetted and possessed a secret – or negative vetting level 1 – clearance.

A post allegedly made by Scerba on 4chan read: "I release what I feel should be in the media: bombings, civilian deaths, actions of the 'terrorists' that just aren't reported in the media."

In their case statement, Commonwealth prosecutors say a former Defence Signals Directorate officer came across the post while browsing the website and immediately reported it to Defence.

By that stage, 14 people had already commented on the pages.

A navy officer saw a series of posts talking about the document four days later, after the original page had been removed.

A user, who prosecutors allege was Scerba, complained that no one had believed the documents were real. 

"Plus to my dismay I just got a bunch of 'fake and gay' remarks and the secret documents went 404 [website not found] about 4 comments 1 hour later," he allegedly posted.

"So... any other suggestions on how to minimize getting caught by authorities?"

The Australian Federal Police later tracked the IP address of the poster to Scerba's home in Richardson, in Canberra's south.

They raided the house, seizing his computer and a broken disc found in a bin, which prosecutors say was used to bring the file home.

A forensic analysis of his computer is said to have found traces of the posted images and evidence that Scerba searched online for ways to cover his tracks.

Prosecutors are alleging the leak risked harming Australia's current and future defence operations, and undermining trust with its intelligence partners.

The content of Scerba's leak is currently the subject of strict secrecy restrictions in the Court. Last week Justice Richard Refshauge made orders protecting the "highly sensitive" evidence that would come before the court.

Some documents will be kept in a safe, and communication about their contents has been restricted.