AUKUS-trated justice

The fates of three Australians separately accused of offending the security establishment are being decided in the shadow of AUKUS

It’s never a good time to be accused of breaching national security laws but as the case of “top-gun” Australian pilot and former US marine, Dan Duggan, shows, that’s doubly so in the era of AUKUS, with Australia’s sovereignty well and truly on the line.  

The case of Dan Duggan has been receiving a lot more attention lately from outlets small and large as the hour approaches for a court decision on whether or not he is to be extradited to the United States. The US alleges that Duggan used the knowledge he gained as a marine fighter pilot to train Chinese military pilots more than 12 years ago. He faces charges of conspiracy, arms trafficking and money laundering. Currently being heard at Sydney’s Downing Centre, the decision is less than two weeks away.

The timing coincides with the sentencing today of whistleblower David McBride accused of leaking secret military information on Afghanistan to the ABC. McBride was sentenced to five years in prison with a 27 months non-parole period.

And in the UK there may be a decision inside a week on whether or not Julian Assange is to be extradited to the US to face charges of espionage.

Duggan, McBride and Assange have one thing in common: they have all mightily offended the security establishment. 

In the cases of Duggan and Assange that tracks directly to the United States. But the Duggan case has some distinguishing features which should ring extra alarm bells for Australian sovereignty in the era of AUKUS. Whatever he may or may not have done, Duggan is the ant being crushed by the elephant, with the willing assistance so far of the Australian government. For the last 18 months or so he has been held in isolation at the maximum security Lithgow Correctional Centre in regional NSW for crimes he allegedly committed between 2009 and 2012. He is therefore being held without charge at the behest of the US government. 

Dan Duggan was born in the US and served in the US marines as a fighter pilot in the 1990s. In 2002 he took up residence in Australia, met his future wife and became an Australian citizen in 2012. The couple have six children. Duggan flew planes for an adventure company he set up. He also did some occasional training. According to extradition documents filed by the US, Duggan used his knowledge to train Chinese military pilots. Duggan’s legal team denies the allegations. Even if the allegations were true, his information would be at least a decade old. 

Dan Duggan’s legal team has called into question the role of Australia’s spy agency ASIO and its dealings over several years with Duggan. The pilot’s wife, Saffrine, has gone public with the accusation that her husband is a victim of a chill in relations between the USA and China. After all, it was not until 2022 that Australian authorities arrested Duggan, acting on a request from the US. So why the sudden interest in alleged transgressions more than a decade old? 

Late last year the Duggan case was raised in Washington during hearings of the US Senate Foreign Relations committee. Coinciding with the second anniversary of the announcement of AUKUS, the high-powered senate committee was wrestling with a key hurdle in progressing the pact: how to ensure that US military secrets would not fall into Chinese hands. Senators cited the training of Chinese pilots and expressed their concern about the risk of secrets leaking out through the involvement of its AUKUS partners. They wanted to know what laws and regulations might be enacted by other countries. 

On this point senators received assurances from top-level US State department official Jessica Lewis. Lewis told senators that she had learned of a case involving an Australian pilot while on a visit to Australia for meetings between the US Secretary of State, Secretary of defence and Australian defence and foreign affairs ministers and officials. While not naming Duggan, Lewis referred to extradition moves being underway to deal with him under “our laws”.

Lewis’ comments have not been reported before in Australia. Yet they point to the real possibility that the Dan Duggan case formed part of the political negotiations over the future of AUKUS.

In a related move, Defence Minister Richard Marles last year introduced legislation which significantly increased gaol terms for those found guilty of leaking military secrets. 

Last week, the government passed legislation which mirrors US laws on disclosing military secrets. The Safeguarding Australia’s Military Secrets Act 2024 (SAMS Act), would “(enhance) the Government’s ability to prevent the unwanted transfer of sensitive defence information to foreign militaries” and “(regulate) the military training that Australians may provide to foreign countries”. 

At the same time Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has declined to intervene in the Duggan prosecution or even to allow Duggan to be on bail and with his family as he awaits a decision on his extradition.

If the aim is for Australia to demonstrate what a good AUKUS partner it is then it is certainly going about it the right way.

David Hardaker is an investigative journalist and author.

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