Australia’s Klu-Klux-Klan in uniform
Ben Roberts-Smith buried a cache of compromising photos, as well as videos and classified documents in his Queensland backyard, to hide them from police and military investigators.
Among the images were those suggesting war crimes had been committed in Afghanistan, and others representing a breakdown of discipline and order.
Mr Roberts-Smith also sent emails and letters intimidating people he believed would give evidence against him.
It’s September 2012 inside a coalition military base in Tarin Kowt in southern Afghanistan and an Australian soldier wearing the white gown and pointed hood of the Ku Klux Klan poses for the camera.
His face obscured by the hood, the soldier holds up a noose like those used by the white supremacist group to lynch African-Americans. In another picture, the man stands with a burning cross, staring at the camera as his colleagues cheer around him.
SAS soldier Ben Roberts-Smith drinks from a prosthetic leg taken from an Afghan man whom he had killed.
The images, taken at a fancy-dress party in an unauthorised military bar called the Fat Ladies Arms, capture soldiers from the elite Perth-based Special Air Services Regiment a decade into Australia’s longest war. They were fighting an insurgency and trying to win hearts and minds in a Muslim country whose inhabitants had already made multiple complaints that some of their number – including that certain friends of the soldier dressed in KKK gear had executed their fathers, brothers and husbands.
They show soldiers drinking beer from the prosthetic leg of a Taliban fighter killed by an Australian soldier in 2009. Most of the soldiers would have known little about the history of the leg, which they called “Das Boot”. But at least one man knew it represented something more sinister, because he had allegedly murdered its former owner outside the laws of combat on Easter Sunday, 2009.
That soldier was allegedly Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated Afghan war veteran and, until recently, a man lauded by politicians as the embodiment of Australia’s ideal fighter. Roberts-Smith is pictured, smiling and pumping his fist, in the background as the soldier in the KKK outfit – one of his mates – burns the cross. He is also happily pictured with people drinking from the leg – despite comments to the Federal Court from his lawyer, Bruce McClintock, in 2019 that his client “thought it was disgusting to souvenir a body part”.
The images published, and hundreds more, were in the possession of Roberts-Smith. Among them is one that shows what former defence force chief Chris Barrie has told The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes is credible evidence of the war crime of desecrating a corpse.
They are clear illustrations of what, when he came to investigate Australian military war crimes in Afghanistan, military Inspector-General Paul Brereton described as a culture in which “ethical leadership was compromised by [the] toleration, acceptance and participation in a widespread disregard for behavioural norms”. Justice Brereton singled out alcohol consumption at the Fat Ladies Arms as one part of that failure of discipline.
One of the photographs shows a senior commissioned Special Air Services Regiment commanding officer simulating a sex act with a high-ranking soldier using an object taken from a model camel.
The images were stored on a series of USB drives that also contained classified documents and videos. But despite Brereton’s order at the start of his probe in 2016 that soldiers hand over all images and files, Roberts-Smith did not do so, according to sources with knowledge of the cache but who have asked to remain anonymous.
Instead, the sources say, Roberts-Smith dug a hole in the backyard of his house in the Sunshine Coast hinterland and buried the USB drives inside a pink plastic children’s lunchbox to hide them from both police and military investigations.
Once the Victoria Cross recipient had filled in the hole, he placed a rock on top to mark the spot.
According to multiple sources familiar with the matter, federal police who are conducting war crimes investigations into the war hero, have since obtained the contents of the USBs.
Brereton’s landmark investigation report into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan last year posed the greatest challenge to the Australian military in decades after he found serious allegations of up to 39 murders committed by special forces. Roberts-Smith has repeatedly denied committing war crimes or any other wrongdoing and is suing The Age and Herald for defamation. He has insisted he has cooperated fully with the Brereton Inquiry and the federal police.
But further evidence obtained by The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes shows the former soldier – who is now an executive at Seven West Media’s Queensland operations – intimidated witnesses in an attempt to stop them giving evidence in inquiries.
Meanwhile leaked recordings of the decorated soldier speaking frankly to a number of associates suggest he is confident that he can see off those seeking to hold him accountable. As long as his employer and benefactor, Seven chairman Kerry Stokes, keeps funding his cause, he says, he will not only win, he will “f—ing destroy” his enemies.
A trophy of war
On September 20, 2012, Ben Roberts-Smith’s patrol choppered towards the village of Tizak in Southern Afghanistan. A battle was looming at a scrubby, stony stretch of land that the 203-centimetre soldier knew well.
It was at Tizak in 2010, two years earlier, that Roberts-Smith had earned his VC by displaying an “extreme devotion to duty” paired with “a total disregard for his own safety” as he “stormed the enemy position”, according to the official citation.
Two years later, Afghans would also die in Tizak. But unlike the famed battle of 2010, this fight would not involve stories of heroism. Instead, SAS members who spoke on the condition of confidentiality say the Brereton Inquiry questioned soldiers about whether some of the Afghan people left dead by Roberts-Smith’s small patrol team had been illegally executed while unarmed.
The Brereton Inquiry’s findings about this Tizak mission were released in November 2020 but were heavily redacted. Multiple sources, including SAS soldiers, said several deaths during this operation had been the subject of investigation. Some of the same sources said the inquiry never obtained one photo from that day. It was lying under dirt and a rock in Roberts-Smith’s backyard.
The image shows an Afghan man killed by the patrol team led by Roberts-Smith. The man is lying on his back on a woven mat. He has a trimmed dark black beard and looks to be in his 30s. His left arm appears badly injured, a bullet wound appears on his head and his face is smeared with fresh blood. No weapon is pictured.
On each of his eyes is a souvenir military coin. One bears the winged dagger emblem of the SAS, the second shows a picture of bushranger Ned Kelly posing with two six-shooters – the emblem of Roberts-Smith’s SAS 2 squadron. The coins were intended to be given to Afghan military allies after joint operations.
A dead suspected Taliban fighter on whose eyes were placed two souvenir Australian military coins.
Former Chief of the Defence Force and Vietnam veteran, Chris Barrie, says the placement of the coins on a deceased man’s eyes amounts to “barbaric trophy hunting”. The practice may also be illegal under international law – the Geneva Conventions prohibit the disrespecting of corpses on the battlefield. Barrie said the image trampled over basic military standards.
Though it is not known who is responsible for the death of this Afghan man, or who placed the coins on his eyes, the picture invites questions for potential investigators from the Brereton Inquiry or the federal police. The boots of two different SAS soldiers can be seen in the shot. These are people who hold critical information.
Souvenir Australian SAS coins given to military allies in Afghanistan.
In June 2018, two years after the Brereton Inquiry was launched and as it was beginning to call in witnesses to testify about Ben Roberts-Smith, an SAS soldier who served with the Victoria Cross winner received a threat in the mail. It warned the soldier that if he did not recant war crimes allegations he would be targeted and would “go down”.
The soldier reported to the federal police the attempt to intimidate him into silence. Police seized the letter and tested it for DNA. The then chief of the defence force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, publicly criticised whoever was behind the missive.
“I think it is disgusting that a disaffected person thought they could threaten a witness and look to influence the inquiry,” Binskin said on June 15.
Former NSW Supreme Court judge Anthony Whealy said the offence of intimidating a witness, if proven in a court, could carry a jail term of up to five years. He described the sending of the letter as “the sort of thing we’d see in The Godfather or mafia-type movies”.
Australia’s most decorated soldier tried to hide shameful images and apparent evidence of war crimes. Now they have been unearthed.
“If it does happen, then it’s demonstrative of the worst kind of affront to the judicial system. Intimidating witnesses is a horrifying thing to happen in our community.”
The police forensics team could not identify the letter’s sender and the AFP investigation quickly stalled. But multiple sources, each with knowledge of different aspects of the threatening letter, now say Roberts-Smith organised it. He had bought the paper and stamps, printed the letter at a Seven Network office in regional Queensland and then arranged for a former contractor to send it from a postbox in Tweed Heads in northern NSW.
There is no suggestion Stokes or any other person at Seven West Media knew anything about Roberts-Smith’s alleged efforts to intimidate witnesses or conceal evidence.
Warnings of a massacre
Months earlier, as another SAS soldier prepared to deliver adverse information about Ben Roberts-Smith to the inquiry, three anonymous emails were sent: one to the federal police, one to independent politician Nick Xenophon and the third to the The Australian newspaper’s editor and the paper’s former WA-based reporter Andrew Burrell.
The emails variously claimed the soldier was at grave risk of committing a violent act in public, including gunning down civilians in Perth. One of the emails referenced the Las Vegas massacre that was carried out by a lone gunman in October 2017 and claimed 60 lives. Spurred into action, authorities arrived at the witness’s family home in Perth with a search warrant and raided the SAS soldier’s family home.
Senior barrister Greg Barns SC, who has spoken to the SAS soldier’s lawyers in Perth and analysed the anonymous emails, described the raid as a “terribly traumatic event” for a family otherwise “living an ordinary Australian life”.
Police found nothing to suggest the soldier was planning a mass shooting, but The Australian seized on allegations in the email and produced a front-page story that alleged the raided soldier had “smuggled automatic weapons from Perth to Afghanistan”. Barns says the emails were designed to force police to act.
“One would assume that the reference [to the Las Vegas massacre] was there to indicate that this person would go out and shoot up a huge number of people … You can’t think in our society of a more chilling and serious allegation,” Barns said. It put the soldier, “in a position where they’re inevitably going to be subjected to a raid from police”.
The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes has confirmed the emails were sent by a former contractor to Ben Roberts-Smith. A number of sources, who can be named (but are not) because they have requested anonymity and in some cases fear retribution, say the contractor was acting on Roberts-Smith’s instructions.
Barns says concocting a false police complaint may amount to a criminal offence if proven in court. And he says the ostensibly anonymous emails appear to have an ultimate aim: to silence the SAS witness before the Brereton Inquiry.
“The point is to make sure that that whistleblower is of no further impact.”
The SAS witness, who retained his job in the regiment, later complained to authorities that the raid was designed to intimidate him into silence before the Brereton Inquiry.
‘My sole f—ing mission’
Ben Roberts-Smith has long been at the centre of a storm. By June 2018, the federal police had launched two separate taskforces into allegations he was involved in the executions of Afghan prisoners in 2009 and 2012, and the Brereton Inquiry was also focused on his alleged role in multiple executions of unarmed Afghans, including prisoners. The media had begun exposing his alleged misdeeds and he has since launched defamation action against The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes. The trial in that case is due to start soon.
But covert recordings of the war hero talking to various associates and now published for the first time, give a rare insight into his confidence. The Roberts-Smith heard on the recordings is bullish.
“All kinds of people have chimed in for their own benefits. They seemed to have smelled blood in the water and thought, ‘Oh, Roberts-Smith is going down, we’ll f—ing chime in’. I’m talking politicians and all kinds of people,” he says of those accusing him of wrongdoing.
But, with the backing of his employer, Seven West Media chairman and billionaire Kerry Stokes, he is full of confidence. He would, he said, go “all the way”.
“There’s no f—ing way I’d be able to keep paying … until Kerry got into it. That’s why now they’re shitting themselves because he’s prepared to run his bank down to do it,” Roberts-Smith says in one conversation.
“But, Seven’s been good … Other businesses would have just gone, ‘Mate, it’s not tenable’ … I offered to resign at the start and they said, ‘Nah’. But it’s good it’s played out the way it has behind closed doors because they now understand.”
Secure in his confidence that he would retain Stokes’ support and his high-paid career as Seven West Media’s Queensland manager, Roberts-Smith is recorded gloating about those, including politicians, journalists and other former soldiers, that he will bring down.
“I’m going to do everything I can to f—ing destroy them mate … That’s my sole f—ing mission in life.”
The police, though, have frequently downed tools. In around April 2020, the AFP sent two briefs of evidence to Commonwealth prosecutors (who did little). The briefs outline the police case that Roberts-Smith is implicated in the execution of Afghan prisoners, including one who was kicked off a small cliff in 2012.
A number of sources have also confirmed that it was some time in 2020 that federal agents covertly obtained the contents of the USBs that Roberts-Smith had buried in his backyard.
Secrets of War
‘I’m going to do everything I can to f—ing destroy them’: Secret Ben Roberts-Smith audio revealed
Police detectives have also gathered evidence that has allowed them to trace back to Roberts-Smith the threatening letter and the emails that prompted a police raid on a Brereton Inquiry witness.
Now this alleged conduct is out in the open, Roberts-Smith may be counting more than ever on support from one of Australia’s most powerful media moguls. In the recordings of the former soldier speaking to his associates, Roberts-Smith describes how he is “indebted to Kerry”.
“I probably won’t leave the fold now,” he says of Stokes’ business empire.
“Bottom line, I’d be f—ed without him … we’ve certainly had those conversations already.”