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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

US reviewed defence training ties with Australia after Brereton inquiry into alleged war crimes

Silhouette of a soldier
The US embassy says the Australian government took action to address the allegations in the Brereton report, and that ‘bilateral security cooperation was never suspended’. Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

The United States says the Brereton inquiry into alleged war crimes by Australian special forces sparked “a bilateral training review” that ended with a decision not to suspend security cooperation between the two countries.

The US embassy in Canberra moved to clear up unanswered questions about the issue on Friday, insisting that the Australian government’s actions to address the allegations had allayed any concerns.

Last week the chief of the Australian defence force, Gen Angus Campbell, revealed for the first time that the Brereton inquiry report had triggered discussions with the two countries, and that one army member’s employment arrangements were “adjusted” to help allay the US concerns.

It prompted the Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie to claim that the US was “dictating” what would happen to Australian personnel.

The talks were triggered by “Leahy laws” – provisions that ban the US from using funds to train units of foreign security forces “where there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violations of human rights”.

A US embassy spokesperson told Guardian Australia on Friday that defence and security ties between the two countries “have been and continue to be exceptionally close”.

“Following the release of the Afghanistan Inquiry Report of the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force, the Australian government took action to address the allegations in the report,” the spokesperson said.

“The US conducted a bilateral training review in accordance with US law and determined that no Leahy law restrictions are warranted for Australian security forces at this time. Funding for bilateral security cooperation was never suspended and training activities were not impacted by this review.”

The embassy spokesperson pointed to continued cooperation between the two countries, including annual rotations of Marines to Darwin, “enhanced rotations” of US air force aircraft to Australia, and the Aukus partnership that also included the UK.

“Our defence and security cooperation is essential for security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Maj Gen Paul Brereton’s four-year inquiry – whose report was released in late 2020 – found “credible” information to implicate 25 current or former Australian special forces personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 individuals and the cruel treatment of two others in Afghanistan.

Last week Campbell told a Senate estimates hearing that he had “received a letter from the United States defence attaché here in Canberra” in March 2021.

Campbell recounted that the letter said the Brereton report “may trigger Leahy law consideration with regard to the relationship between the United States armed forces and a partner unit or organisation, in this case either being Special Operations Command or the Special Air Service (SAS) regiment”.

Guardian Australia understands the then chief of the army, Lt Gen Rick Burr, subsequently wrote to a special forces member in February 2022 to say that while the person continued to serve in the special forces, there was “no path” to alleviate the concerns of the US.

The person was informed that they would not be posted to support the SAS regiment or Special Operations Command, and would also not be able to join operations or exercises that involved the US.

At the Senate committee, Campbell said he knew “of one member of the army whose employment arrangements – as in posted position – was adjusted based on consideration of the question in part of whether Leahy law issues may emerge”.

He said it was important to ensure “there is no uncertainty about the continuing relationship between Australian and United States special forces” and the change was made with “due care” to the individual’s “circumstances and opportunities and professional development”.

Lambie asked “why consideration of US law is being used to take action against Australian soldiers”.

“Quite frankly, I find it atrocious,” she told the committee. “They’re going to start dictating that this is what’s going to happen to our personnel?”

Campbell replied: “Senator, I can assure you there was absolutely no dictate or threat or inappropriate conduct in any way, shape or form.

“And I do say that any casual reader of that redacted [Brereton report] document would say it refers to credible information of allegations of unlawful conduct or in the United States’ term to gross violations of human rights.”

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