The Australian government has deemed my identity – as it pertains to the linkages with this situation and the nom de plume Witness J, as verboten. If I was to forgo the Australian government’s threats I would likely see myself swiftly imprisoned again and if that were to happen, I fear that certain emerging details around my situation would be lost to a public who I ardently believe have a right to know.
One of the hardest things I’ve done along this journey was to hand back my Civilian Operational Service Medal. I received this medal for working alongside Australia’s special forces in our nation’s contribution to defeating Islamic State. I went to Iraq as a spy, and proudly earned this medal which sat among those I’d earned earlier as an officer in the defence force.
I’d heard stories from my own uncle, a decorated American veteran of the Vietnam War, who angrily threw away his own medals on the steps of the US Capitol in 1971, rejecting the significance of those precious awards as a protest to a war that he saw as immoral. I never understood it – how he could have thrown away those prestigious symbols of national recognition; symbols that recognised his honourable duty discharged, regardless that the war’s premise was rotten.
In returning my own medal, I wasn’t protesting the necessity to challenge Islamic State, but rather my own country’s betrayal of me as one of its most committed and loyal servants. I didn’t theatrically hurl my award – as my uncle once did in front of a roaring crowd – but instead quietly handed it to a member of the ABC in protest, despite wanting to personally hand it back to the director general of the secret organisation that awarded it to me.
For the first time I felt a true understanding of my uncle’s position, and in many ways, this award from Liberty Victoria, which I share jointly, has soothed the pain I’ve felt since relinquishing my treasured medal in March.
It’s fair to say that I am deeply angry about how I have been treated, and in particular the failures of the secret intelligence agency I worked for in the events leading up to my incarceration. That I cannot legally name this secret agency, or disclose my real identity of my own volition, is a scary indictment on a nation that was founded with democracy and freedom at its core; perhaps now is the time to inoculate ourselves and our civil liberties with a formal bill of rights.
After secretly serving 455 days in prison, I was released on recognizance in August 2019 and quietly re-entered society. Since then it has become a matter of public record that I worked over two careers as an intelligence officer, serving in flashpoints like East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere abroad, often under diplomatic cover, and always serving Australia’s national interest in both war and peace.
As a former intelligence officer I am acutely aware of why the foreign intelligence and security apparatuses exists: there are truly those in the world with evil and violent motivations, and at times I have come face to face with the men who would do our families harm. However, informed as I am, I can also clearly and authoritatively assert that Australia is slipping quietly, and disastrously, into an authoritarianism that cannot be justified by the threats that exist in the world today.
The seething anger inside me has driven me to pursue justice against my former employer, and behind the scenes my lawyers are building a case to hold them accountable for their gross negligence in failing me when I needed mental health support. Had I been provided this support on any of the three occasions when I begged senior intelligence officers for it, I am confident that this journey would never have unravelled.
And, while I have atoned for my sins through the practical demolition of my life, the continuing anonymity of my former employer, and the unrealised accountability for their own part in this mess, is still deeply concerning to me.
“But why fight?” you might ask, and not simply go quietly about my business and re-build a shattered life in the shadows. In answer to this hypothetical, I’m reminded of certain words spoken by Theodore Roosevelt:
“If I must choose between righteousness and peace, I choose righteousness”.
I too have chosen the path of righteousness over peace, and intend to be a thorn in this emerging security state’s backside for as long as I can muster the strength. I implore you all to stand shoulder to shoulder with me and say loudly “enough!”, and that secret trials, secret prisoners, and a creeping authoritarianism are ideas that freedom loving people reject without reservation.
While I take no enjoyment whatsoever in being Australia’s first secret prisoner, I would take immense pride in being her last.
Witness J was Australia’s first and only secret prisoner. In May 2018, he was gaoled for fifteen months following a secret trial, after requesting mental health support from the Australian intelligence agency in which he worked. He is the author of ‘Here, There are Dragons’. Twitter: @witnessj8.
This article is adapted from a speech that was recently delivered on Witness J’s behalf to Liberty Victoria’s Voltaire Human Right’s Awards.