Australian secret service officers have seized hundreds of classified documents from the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) as part of a probe into how top-secret government papers were mistakenly sold along with two discarded filing cabinets in a second-hand furniture shop.
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) officers seized documents from ABC offices in Parliament House in the capital, Canberra, and in the cities of Brisbane and Melbourne, the state-owned broadcaster said.
Hours earlier, the ASIO had provided document safes to the ABC offices to safeguard the files while lawyers negotiated over what to do with the papers which include cabinet secrets spanning almost a decade.
The ABC revealed it possessed thousands of cabinet documents which had been found inside surplus government filing cabinets.
The cabinets were sold at a discount price because they were locked and no-one could find any keys, the broadcaster reported.
It also reported that the ASIO seized hundreds of the documents on Thursday, but it is not immediately clear whether all were retrieved.
The documents were seized as part of an agreement struck with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s department, which is investigating how the documents came to be sold through a Canberra shop, the ABC and the government said in a joint statement.
“This has been achieved without compromising the ABC’s priority of protecting the integrity of its source and its reporting, while acknowledging the Commonwealth’s national security interests,” the joint statement said.
ABC has not identified the buyer of the cabinets, who removed the locks with a drill and found classified papers spanning almost a decade and four prime ministers, the most recent being Tony Abbott. Mr Abbott was replaced in 2015 by Mr Turnbull.
Mr Abbott, who remains an MP, had argued that the documents should be returned in the national interest and those who discarded them should be punished.
“It’s not so much a Cabinet leak as a leaked cabinet,” Mr Abbott said.
Media lawyer Nicholas Pullen questioned whether the ABC was legally obliged to return them. “It presents one of the greatest legal minefields I’ve seen in a long time,” he told Ten Network television.
The prime minister said police were involved in his department’s investigation.
“It’s a dreadful failure of responsibility,” Mr Turnbull said. “The people responsible will pay a heavy price, I can assure you.”