Winston Churchill was a little better at accepting responsibility than the Australian officer class. After the fall of Singapore, he said, "I didn't know. I wasn't told. I should have asked". But, he added later, "the possibility of Singapore having no landward defences no more entered into my mind than that of a battleship being launched without a bottom".
Justice Paul Brereton has by no means exonerated the officers of the SAS regiments. But in focusing on moral failure, he is all too kind. Ordinary management failures, not moral ones, caused the development of a warrior culture which produced murders of civilians, sometimes so as to "blood" new members of a unit and bind them into a team. Managers must accept responsibility for falsified reports, planted evidence and troopers who despised their leaders - none of whom were "outside the wire" or physically close to the wrongdoing.
The villains - some psychopaths - were the ones who developed and enforced the culture, successfully concealing it from their leaders. These are the ones being investigated for the murder of 39 Afghan civilians. None of these alleged murders was in the heat of battle. In no case was there ambiguity about whether the rules of engagement or the general laws of war or customs of the army permitted what happened.
But the officers should have known what was going on. None were wilfully blind to what occurred. Most, we can take it, would have done their duty had they realised. But their ignorance was more than a moral failure, or like a situation where the woman at the top must accept responsibility for anything done anywhere in her organisation. Officer neglect or ignorance is no small thing. The shame of their failures will hang over the SAS, the ADF, and the whole nation for many years.
Our shame must embrace an Australian War Memorial - which not so innocently - turned some of the players into cult heroes, and accused anyone asking questions of undermining men and women simply doing their duty. It must do more than "deal fairly" with the accusations. It must fundamentally reorder its display.
Politicians and ministers are specifically exonerated. The failure was in the ADF, operational not political. But Brereton is again too kind. The culture was nurtured by political failures: ill-defined war aims, not telling what was actually wanted beyond puff pieces fed to a generally tame Defence media. The soldiers knew that no one - least of all in Canberra, cared. It's not easy to continually put your life on the line in such a cause.
Brendan Nelson, who as minister for defence was party to sending them there, as war memorial director chief cheerleader for the SAS warrior culture, and now representative of the foreign arms industry that kills people on all sides, should be the first to show his shame. He, and his enabling board should disappear from public life.
Peppered through the reports is instance after instance of simple management failure - neglect of processes which ought to have disclosed the appalling situation at the sharp end; leadership failure - including the fostering of a reporting culture which deliberately sent bland and misleading reports upwards and never confronted the men about obvious breaches of discipline. Even a secret pub which could send elite warriors into action drunk.
Officers who thought they were not being loyal to their men if they asked questions, and who thought their primary role was to smooth their path and protect them from pesky intruders.
Officers who, wittingly or not, became cheerleaders for the cowboys.
The representation behind the secrecy is 'trust us. We know our duty, to Australia as much as our men and women'. That's the real lie - the real shame, and the real failure.
Junior officers too low in the pecking order to be actually able to command, let alone be beside experienced and disdainful corporals leading patrols of six soldiers.
Slightly more senior officers who would chuck out (as poor leaders) junior officers who could not win the admiration of the cowboys.
Even more senior ones who resisted scrutiny, including media scrutiny. Creators of a secretive culture who hid behind alibis about national security, "operational reasons", bland denials and claims that "inadequate" (and sabotaged) investigations could not substantiate complaints. And an entirely false pretence that the Afghans were calling the shots, not the SAS.
The Australian Defence Force has long been hostile to media scrutiny. Reporters get in the way. They are often serious distractions at a time of maximum crisis. Their criticisms, if informed, can undermine morale. Their acceptance of facts or opinions by people lower in the chain of command can undermine good order and discipline. Their reporting can also unwittingly convey information, including sensitive operational information to the enemy.
No one could exemplify this broad attitude better than General Angus Campbell, chief of the Defence Force. He's the one who coined the phrase "on-water matters" to withhold, on operational security grounds, details of how armed Australians were driving refugees from our shores. There is still no accounting, or independent review, of what happened under his command. A former leader of the SAS, but one allowed to blame "the culture" of non-comms for bad outcomes. Not his culture of secrecy, or the managerial culture of complacency. It was leadership - or the lack of it - that is responsible for the growth of the problem and the failure of SAS commanders to know what their men were doing. The ADF is one of the most secretive forces in the world. It is not better as a result.
The representation behind the secrecy is "trust us. We know our duty, to Australia as much as our men and women." That's the real lie - the real shame, and the real failure.
If our experience with Afghanistan is any guide, we do not get effective leadership. We get moral failure, whether from studied incuriosity or incompetence. We are all diminished by bland but false assurances, resistance to answering questions, and a default tendency to cover up.
Even those who eventually took belated action in 2016 - including Campbell himself - must ask themselves why it took an outsider investigating culture in the ADF at large rather than special forces in particular - to say what the dogs were barking. The much-despised media - as so often in catalogues of incompetence, cowardice, criminal conduct and abuse of power - had blown the whistle long before any officer did a thing. Or, to be fair, a thing that had any fundamental effect on what was happening. The reward for some in the media - and the CDF must take his share of responsibility for this - was the prosecution of the leaker - a classic case of blaming the messenger.
The overall assessment - of system failure - is unfair on some ex-SAS officers who were talking to each other and officers still in charge about their fear of a new SAS culture of the warrior. An SAS background now seems to be in the ADF DNA: governors-general, successive chiefs of the army, even the odd parliamentarian.
People had expressed worries long before defence machinery began to grind. And thorough as the Brereton inquiry was, its five-year lifespan means that offences will be prosecuted, if at all, more than 13 years after they occurred. It is now nine or 10 years since the most serious misconduct, and, almost certainly, no one will come to trial, if any ever do, less than 13 years after the commission of any offence. No doubt the cheerleader lobby, with their insider access to government, will by then be arguing that it is now too late to prosecute and that we should let bygones be bygones.
Who was it who said there are no bad teams, only bad leaders?
Murder not an AFP core competency
The path to the law courts for SAS murder suspects won't be smooth, quick, certain or inexorable. Justice Brereton had a power AFP investigators will not have: he could compel soldiers to give answers, promising them that nothing they said could be used in cases against them. (Though they could be required to give evidence against others.)
Investigating murders is not the AFP's long suit. While AFP detectives working in the ACT office handle the odd murder case - usually three to six a year, most of them straightforward, many that are not straightforward are never solved. Murder is generally a matter for state or territory jurisdictions, not the Commonwealth.
National AFP detectives may have become skilled in drug and terrorism matters, and turn their hand from time to time on complex frauds, mostly after preliminary briefs have been handed over by investigators in tax, or social security.
The skills required to investigate alleged murders committed thousands of miles away, with many critical witnesses incapable of speaking English, are a world apart from what the AFP usually does or has experience in. While a few officers will have ACT experience, and some experience in state forces before they transferred sideways to the AFP, none of these are of a seniority or experience that they could naturally head a substantial homicide squad. A few senior officers at executive levels think their general detective experience makes them the equal of any in the land. But this is not the professional assessment of their peers in state forces. NSW and Victoria, despite their obvious limitations, are far better trained and equipped to do the job.
Those accused have no reason at all to cooperate with any further investigation, and their legal advisers will be urging them not to do so. Only when they are at serious risk of conviction will there be any perceived advantage in confession, or cooperation in the conviction of others in exchange for easier treatment. Those who must testify against mates in their own sections will mostly do so sullenly and with maximum intention to be unhelpful, and to widen not narrow any cracks in the case.
The AFP, and many other forces, have become lazy in recent years because of ready (and from the local judiciary, generally uncritical) access to bugging devices, telephone and computer taps. They also have various means of coercing co-operation, or concealing the processes of justice, by bogus national security claims.
Although many of these investigative short cuts have been imported, often without proper public consultation, intro ordinary criminal investigation, they may be of little advantage in an ordinary murder case. Neither the government nor the ADF is at all keen to disclose details of its secret communications systems, which includes additional potential evidence available from spy-in-the-sky devices, and, possibly drones. Brereton and his team assembled cases to near brief stages without needing to resort to such information (even if it is not impossible that some of the information was cross-checked against information never put to suspects.)
The arts of interrogation have been neglected because of forensic shortcuts. The basic techniques may be taught to cops destined to question drug addicts, men who assault their wives, ram raiders, and people who download paedophilic porn from the internet. But anyone who wants to see a real balls-up should review AFP interviews with Mohammed Haneef, or some AFP interviews of Australians in rendition camps. At times investigative strategy can trick admissions from Islamic terrorists not known for subtlety. But SAS troopers are trained in how to resist hostile interrogation, in the art of avoiding semantic traps, and in their rights, as suspects in Australia, to keep their mouths shut.
The special coordinator of the investigation will have a very difficult task, and not only in the gathering of admissible evidence. He will have no help from the DPP, because the DPP is not tasked with or equipped to supervise investigations, and is generally bad at it when the office tries to take charge. A DPP's job is to receive evidence and determine whether it is enough to find a prosecution likely to be successful, if necessary returning it to police with a report on its legal deficiencies. If it is good enough - and the Commonwealth DPP sets the threshold high - the job is to prosecute. Despite that threshold, the DPP loses many more cases than one might expect - a testament either to the vagaries of juries or their not being as good as they think.
Police investigators, and executives, reviewing the Brereton report might find themselves struck by similarities between ADF culture and practice and their own. And by the way that systems supposedly in place routinely fail. Brereton's report has chapter and verse on how internal investigations can be frustrated by experienced officers, how officers overlook bad behaviour out of "loyalty" to their men, or run interference against internal and external inquiries that might upset the troops
With the SAS, there were clear signs of things awry. Coalition partners gossiped about it. The media was on to it. Occasional talk came to officers' notice. There were intense local conflicts, including with Australian Secret Intelligence Service officers passing on intelligence, that ought to have sounded alarms. Officers at various levels occasionally asked questions. But the system reported up, not down, and many officers, safe inside the wire, thought they should not second guess the boys taking the risks. Nor incur their ire by asking too many questions. Some officers helped edit battlefield reports deliberately so as to be bland and uninteresting, unlikely to cause alarm upstairs. When there were complaints, the boys, with the assistance of officers, lawyered up with army lawyers, lost their temper with people who were not real soldiers questioning judgements, and blandly denied everything. Commanders, right up to the very top dismissed Afghan complaints as coming from people repeating enemy propaganda, perhaps under pressure, or on the make for compensation. It was a major dereliction of duty at all levels.
Could anything similar occur in the AFP - perhaps the most politicised force in the nation?
One would have only to paraphrase Brereton slightly to describe how police internal affairs units, coroners' officers, and sometimes even integrity units investigate other police, and, overwhelmingly, find that complaints have not been made out. The culture of which Brereton complains in special forces - a culture of flat refusal to account - has long been a feature of Australian police forces, especially those, such as the AFP, which have never been the subject of independent external review.
The ADF, like the AFP, is learning from and copying the culture of modern politics - as our formal watchdogs, such as Auditors General are defanged and starved of funds, and as our leaders, from the prime minister down, display their contempt for law, propriety and transparency.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.