Rafael Epstein, Dylan Welch March 13, 2012
Australian SAS soldiers has been operating at large in Africa, performing work normally done by spies, in an unannounced and possibly dangerous expansion of Australia's foreign military engagement.
The deployment of the SAS's 4 Squadron - the existence of which has never been publicly confirmed - has put the special forces unit at the outer reaches of Australian and international law.
The Herald has confirmed that troopers from the squadron have mounted dozens of secret operations during the past year in various African nations, including Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Kenya.
They have been out of uniform and not accompanied by Australian Secret Intelligence Service officers with whom undercover SAS forces are conventionally deployed.
It is believed the missions have involved gathering intelligence on terrorism and scoping rescue strategies for Australian civilians trapped by kidnapping or civil war.
But the operations have raised serious concerns within the Australian military and intelligence community because they involve countries where Australia is not at war.
There are also concerns within the SAS that the troopers do not have adequate legal protection or contingency plans should they be captured. ''They have all the espionage skills but without [ASIS's] legal cover,'' said one government source. In a comment relayed to government officials, one soldier said: ''What happens if we get caught?''
A professor at Australian National University, Hugh White, a former deputy secretary of Defence, said: ''[Such an operation] deprives the soldier of a whole lot of protections, including their legal status and in a sense their identity as a soldier. I think governments should think extremely carefully before they ask soldiers to do that.''
Despite the dangers, the then foreign affairs minister Kevin Rudd last year asked for troopers from 4 Squadron to be used in Libya during the conflict. His plan was thwarted by opposition from the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, and the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General David Hurley. Mr Smith and General Hurley declined to be interviewed for this story.
SAS 4 Squadron is based in Victoria, at Swan Island in Port Phillip Bay, a high-security facility that has doubled in size in the past decade, in part to accommodate the new squadron.
The squadron was formally raised in 2005 by the Howard government but the Herald has learnt that its intelligence-focused role was authorised in late 2010 or early 2011 by Mr Smith.
The SAS is at the forefront of gender change in the Australian military, with six female soldiers being trained in the US for their work with 4 Squadron.
Collecting intelligence overseas without using violence is the main function of ASIS, which was created in 1952 but not officially acknowledged until 1977.
Since the mid-1980s, ASIS has been refused permission to carry weapons or use violence but in 2004 the Howard government amended legislation to allow officers weapons for self-defence and to participate in violent operations provided they did not use force.
It was about that time that the creation of the fourth SAS squadron was authorised, to be an elite version of bodyguards and scouts for ASIS intelligence officers.
The African operations by 4 Squadron initially centred on possible rescue scenarios for endangered Australian citizens, such as the freelance journalist Nigel Brennan who was held by Somali rebels.
The soldiers have also assessed African border controls, explored landing sites for possible military interventions and assessed local politics and security.
ASIS officers are legally permitted to carry false Australian passports and, if arrested, can deny by whom they are employed. Defence Force members on normal operations cannot carry false identification or deny which government they work for.
While the SAS has worked alongside Australia's intelligence agencies for decades, the creation of a dedicated squadron mirrors the US model in which the military and intelligence services have forged much closer links.
That close relationship has resulted in the growing importance of the US's Joint Special Operations Command whose soldiers killed the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last year.
Some staff at the ADF's special operations command see 4 Squadron detracting from what they believe is the main effort - the war in Afghanistan and the counterterrorism teams on the east and west coasts of Australia, manned by soldiers from the 2nd Commando Regiment and the SAS respectively.
Others argue it is vital to Australia's contribution to the US fight against al Qaeda - particularly in the Horn of Africa where in recent years the US military and intelligence agencies have sharpened their focus.
US intelligence believes that many second-tier al-Qaeda fighters and leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan have fled there. The intelligence gathered by the Australian soldiers in countries such as Kenya flows into databases used by the US and its allies in Africa.
Australia's security service, ASIO, is increasingly concerned by the domestic threat posed by the Somali Islamist terrorist group al-Shabaab. ASIO has concerns a group within Australia's growing Somali community is sending money to al-Shabaab.