The Australian federal police has launched a fresh investigation into former soldier Ben Roberts-Smith after it was alleged he buried sensitive material in his backyard and attempted to intimidate a witness in an active investigation into war crimes.
The AFP deputy commissioner, Ian McCartney, told a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday that police had opened an investigation into the new allegations.
The Nine Network has alleged that Roberts-Smith buried – in a child’s lunchbox in his backyard – USB sticks containing classified information including operational reports from an SAS mission in southern Afghanistan, drone footage and photos.
The Nine report also alleged Roberts-Smith, a winner of the Victoria Cross, sent emails and letters intimidating people he believed would give evidence against him to war crimes investigators.
Audio recordings published by Nine allegedly reveal Roberts-Smith speaking candidly about seeking retribution against politicians, journalists and other former soldiers who have opposed him.
“I’m going to do everything I can to fucking destroy them mate … that’s my sole fucking mission in life,” he allegedly said.
McCartney confirmed: “The AFP has opened an investigation into aspects of that media reporting.” He declined to say whether the AFP was in possession of USB drives. “Given it’s an ongoing investigation we’d prefer not to provide a running commentary.”
McCartney would not confirm any of the particulars of the investigation but made the general observation that witness intimidation was a serious issue.
“Some of the allegations that have been raised are serious and it’s being treated as a priority by the Australian federal police,” he said.
Roberts-Smith, one of Australia’s most decorated soldiers, is suing the publishers of the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times over articles he says defamed him when reporting he was alleged to have committed war crimes in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2012.
Roberts-Smith has consistently denied all claims made against him. A statement issued on his behalf on Wednesday denied the new allegations.
“The allegations that he ‘hid’ or failed to disclose material to the inspector general of the ADF during the Afghanistan inquiry is false. Mr Roberts-Smith fully cooperated with the Afghanistan inquiry,” the statement said.
“The allegations that he threatened any witnesses or potential witness to the inspector general … to stop them giving evidence is false. The allegations he buried USBs in his backyard is false. This simply did not happen.”
Arthur Moses, acting for Roberts-Smith, told a federal court directions hearing that the publication of the allegations ahead of the June defamation trial was an abuse of process.
“Eight weeks out from a trial, there is a concerted effort by the respondents to publish material prejudicial to the trial. That is an abuse – if they want to run the case then they should do it properly.”
The AFP has previously confirmed it was investigating allegations of war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan but has refused to confirm or deny specific incidents or identify who it was investigating.
A report last year by the inspector general of the Australian Defence Force, Paul Brereton, found credible evidence to support allegations Australian special forces troops were involved in the murder of 39 Afghan civilians, in some cases executing prisoners to “blood” junior soldiers before inventing cover stories and planting weapons on corpses.
Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton described the special forces’ actions as a “disgraceful and a profound betrayal” of the ADF.