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Media/Whistleblower Faces the Prospect of Jail

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The Law Report (ABC): Whistleblower Faces the Prospect of Jail

Date
May 29, 2007
Note
This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.


Damien Carrick: Today: When co-workers let you down: the case of the police-officer who was abandoned by her partner at a highly stressful crime scene.

Also, just how far can a lawyer go in bluffing and blustering while negotiating? A tale of the barrister who went too far.

But first, an exclusive interview with whistleblower Allan Kessing.

Allan Kessing is a convicted criminal. In March a jury found him guilty of leaking a confidential report to The Australian newspaper back in 2005.

That report, written by Kessing, identified a range of serious breaches in security at Sydney Airport.

Kessing's report was buried by the Customs Department. It was not handed to government and did not reach the light of day until it was leaked, some 30 months after it was written.

Last Friday Kessing was back in court for a sentencing hearing. Having heard the arguments, the judge said he would consider the issues and hand down a sentence on June 14. Newspaper reports say the judge is sympathetic to imposing a prison sentence.

I spoke to Allan Kessing yesterday. He tells me this is his first broadcast interview. He says he's not looking forward to the prospect of going to jail.

Allan Kessing: Well obviously it's rather shocking; I can't say I'm looking forward to it, and I'm very surprised it would come to this.

Damien Carrick: Now I understand you've always claimed that you're not guilty of disclosing anything. Let's talk a little bit about what the jury did find you guilty of. Some years ago you worked for the Customs airport security unit, and you wrote a report about airport security; what did you find?

Allan Kessing: Well I wrote two reports. One focused on a specific group and the other took a random sample of people in all the areas behind what is called the sterile area, that is, areas to which the public do not have access. I can't actually say what I found, except what was in the papers, because that would constitute another offence; this is how draconian the law is. I can't talk about anything that I learned during my employment as a Customs officer.

Damien Carrick: Well I understand the report talked about the employment of baggage handlers with criminal records; theft of luggage; drug trafficking; a whole range of breaches of security.

Allan Kessing: Yes, this is correct.

Damien Carrick: And what did the Department do? As I understand it, the Department effectively sat on your report. They didn't even show it to the Federal government, is that right?

Allan Kessing: That's correct. In fact it did not get out of Sydney Airport. They didn't even show it to their superiors in Canberra, as was evidenced by the procession of senior managers who came at my trial. A half a dozen of them all swore on oath that they were unaware of the existence of the reports until the media leaks. You know, 30 months after they were written.

Damien Carrick: So 30 months after you'd written your report and submitted it to the Department, somebody (you say not you) leaked the documents to The Australian newspaper, and of course the huge furore this caused, the front page banner headlines it's caused, led to the government calling in leading UK security expert Sir John Wheeler, to write a report, which confirmed your findings, and that prompted the government to spend something like $200-million in boosting airport security. It was probably the most extensive overhaul of Australian airport security ever.

Allan Kessing: Well this is what we find, yes. But in fact at the sentencing hearing on Friday though, they sent along the New South Wales Regional Director of Customs, Gail Batman?, who actually denied once again on oath, that the Wheeler Report was solely as a result of those revelations. They were trying to even play down the reasons for the Wheeler Report being instituted, although as he makes clear in his opening statement in the Wheeler Report, and as the government made clear, it was solely as a result of those leaks.

Damien Carrick: Well how do you feel about the prospect of going to jail?

Allan Kessing: Well as I said, I retired two years ago and the last two years have been absolute hell. I've been on tenterhooks the whole time, and the thought of finishing up two years of waiting to be judged with a jail sentence is just beyond credence. I would not have thought it would happen in a country like Australia. It reminds me of the opening lines to Franz Kafka's novel 'The Trial', it said 'Somebody has been telling lies about K, for without his knowing why, he was under sentence.'

Damien Carrick: But playing Devil's Advocate, I think the judge or the prosecutor said last Friday, Look, we need to deter other people from leaking confidential reports to the media, we need to send a message.

Allan Kessing: Yes, well exactly. The Crown Prosecutor, Lincoln Crowley, made exactly that point, that it was necessary for a custodial sentence to deter other potential whistleblowers amongst the public service. My barrister made the point that he said he could see nothing wrong with exposing our government agency to criticism if the criticism was justified through maladministration and/or incompetence.

Damien Carrick: The jury, I understand, back in March/April, took three days to deliberate in your case; a reasonable amount of time. I mean they had trouble coming to a verdict, and they asked the judge quite a few questions.

Allan Kessing: I think it was 13 questions in all, yes.

Damien Carrick: I understand they were told by the judge not to take into account the public interest argument. In other words, the idea that if you did disclose the documents, which you deny, you should be able to rely on a public interest defence, that you in effect were doing the community an enormous service by alerting everyone to the report.

Allan Kessing: That's correct. And in fact his very last instructions were 'You have been unable to reach a unanimous version. I urge you to stay behind; I'll order an evening meal for you, but you must not take into account the public interest.' So basically they were going to be there that evening, and they came back half an hour later with the guilty verdict although they'd said twice they were unable to reach a unanimous decision.

Damien Carrick: I understand that in the prosecution's submissions to the court on the issue of sentencing, last Friday, the prosecution said 'Look, there was a massive potential to disrupt operations by various agencies, perhaps security agencies, and what you did was potentially extremely dangerous.'

Allan Kessing: Yes, it's basically the argument about why do you throw in wooffle dust and keep away dinosaurs, but there aren't any dinosaurs. Well it shows you how effective the woofle dust is.

Damien Carrick: You maintain that the leaking of the document did not lead to any risks of existing operations?

Allan Kessing: I don't see how it could, given the documents were 30 months old. That's the point. The reports that I wrote were based upon research conducted prior to 2002 and the early part of 2003. And given that they weren't acted upon, to say that they were operations going on in the latter half of 2005 is just ludicrous.

Damien Carrick: Now obviously you're concentrating on your own predicament right now, but what does this saga bring to mind for you about the state of accountability, transparency, fairness, in Australia today?

Allan Kessing: Well it basically shows that anybody who knows of maladministration or corruption either in the private or the public sector, would be well advised to say nothing, do nothing, keep your head down and look after your career and your mortgage. It takes away the individual's responsibility and participation in what was once a constitutional democracy. We are being governed by fear at the moment; it's what the government wants and everybody else has to just - you know, head down, tail up.

Damien Carrick But we can't have people willy nilly leaking information here, there and everywhere, without any punishment. I mean there are reasons for the laws that we have about leaking information.

Allan Kessing: I agree that a lot of information should not be made public, but that is not the case here. In fact there was a Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls, in Britain, back in the '60s, made the point that a servant is not responsible for covering up the criminality of his master. And that was a landmark decision in the Privy Council. And in this case the criminality, or the incompetence, or maladministration, whatever you want to call it, deserved to be exposed by somebody. But most people, as I say, they have careers, they have mortgages, to worry about.

Damien Carrick: And that leads to people not speaking out and perhaps the public interest not being served.

Allan Kessing: Well I think it was well illustrated in the Nuremberg Trials that 'I was only following orders' is not an adequate defence. Now you may think that's a little overblown, but the point is, when individuals do you rely upon their conscience, then for evil to succeed is only necessary that good men do nothing.

Damien Carrick: You would actually see this issue in those grander terms, that this is actually of profound importance to our democracy.

Allan Kessing: I think it is a constitutional point which must be brought out, that the government is only the servant of the people, and it is not, it should not be, protected from their embarrassment. Certainly it should be - information needs to be protected, but only when there is a valid reason. There is no blanket reason to cover up maladministration when the only people affected would be the maladministrators.

Damien Carrick: You've received support from across the media: Janet Albrechtson from The Australian newspaper wrote, well she suggested in one of her articles or pieces, that members of the government should think about you every time they bought an aeroplane, and they should be grateful to you for what you've done, because she was saying effectively we're all safer for what you've done.

Allan Kessing: I don't think there's any argument about that. I mean the mere fact that the government said Oh yes, all recommendations accepted, here's $200-million. They wouldn't do that if there was not a problem to be addressed.

Damien Carrick: Can I ask, you say you didn't do this; but who do you think did do it?

Allan Kessing: Well, I'm not going to say who, but -

Damien Carrick: Do you know who did it?

Allan Kessing: Yes.

Damien Carrick: Why do you think the finger was pointed at you?

Allan Kessing: I was an easy target, I was retired, I had never been a quiet, acquiescent type, so yes I think I was just the easiest target.

Damien Carrick: How many people saw the report?

Allan Kessing: According to the government, at least 73, but it's - the point is it was flying around the unsecure Customs email system from 2003 until mid-2005, in contravention of Customs' own security regulations, it should not have been put on the email system as was testified by various people at the trial. So it was flying around the email system, which is a simple matter of copying and sending it on to the next person. There were an unknown number of hard copies of the final reports, and an unknown number of drafts, which were left on open shelves in open offices, as once again, as testified.

Damien Carrick: Allan Kessing, who has been found guilty of leaking a confidential report. He's going back to court on 14th June to receive his sentence.

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