Filing cabinets containing thousands of top-secret documents belonging to the Australian government have been sold in a second-hand shop.
An investigation has been launched after the classified files entered the public domain. They have been obtained by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which has described the incident as an “extraordinary breach of national security”.
The cabinets were sold by a furniture shop in Canberra at a discounted price because they were locked and no one could find the keys.
They remained unopened for months until the person who bought the cabinets used a drill to remove the locks – discovering a tranche of cabinet documents spanning more than a decade.
The ABC says the documents, known as The Cabinet Files reveal the inner workings of five separate governments and four prime ministers – detailing Australia’s intelligence priorities, counter-terrorism strategies, missile upgrades and profiles of terror suspects.
Almost all the files are classified and some are marked AUSTEO – for Australian eyes only.
The files reveal former finance minister Penny Wong left nearly 200 top-secret papers in her old office when her government was voted out in 2013, including Middle East defence plans, national security briefs and updates on the war in Afghanistan.
Asked about the leaked documents and the ABC’s reporting on them, Australia’s current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said: “I think they’ve come across someone’s bottom drawer in Canberra.”
The files also revealed that former prime minister John Howard’s National Security Committee (NSC) gave serious consideration to removing the right to remain silent when being questioned by police.
The sale of the furniture in the shop is not limited to Australians, the ABC said, which means the cabinets could have been bought by anyone, and indeed, sold on or given to anyone.
As a justification to why they have chosen to publish some of the files, the ABC said that “national security and the inner workings of our government affect the lives of all Australians”.
It added that the files “expose repeated security breaches” and show the “casual attitude of some of those charged with keeping the documents safe”.
The state-owned broadcaster said it had chosen not to report some documents on national security grounds.