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National Security Law Review Announced After Inquiry Criticises Witness J Case Secrecy

Updated: Aug 20, 2022

Witness J, also referred to by the pseudonyms Prisoner 123458 and Alan Johns, is a former Australian intelligence officer, who was charged, secretly imprisoned and prosecuted under a secret trial. The secret imprisonment, which lasted 15 months, and trial was conducted under Section 22 of the National Security Information (NSI) Act. In July 2022, following the release of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor’s final report into the case of Witness J, the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, announced a review of the NSI Act.

A silhouetted man in a black suit with the letter 'J' over their face, foregrounded by the text "Witness J".

Witness J had served in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq with a distinguished record. While working within Australia's military and intelligence network, Witness J was undergoing a re-validation of his high-level security clearance while serving a civilian posting in a South-East Asian country. As part of the re-validation process, Witness J was asked questions from his vetting officer regarding financial and personal circumstances. Witness J's "lack of candour" in his responses raised concerns that, as a single man in a South-East Asian capital, he may be compromised. Former Australian Federal representative, George Christensen, faced similar suspicions when his numerous trips to The Philippines were investigated by Australian Federal Police.

Witness J had also sought mental health assistance on three occasions. However, his high-level security clearance prevented him from seeking help outside his employment. Witness J made complaints to his agency, claiming unfair treatment, via an open network. According to the ABC, Witness J "accused fellow case officers of behaviour which he believed was more egregious than his own. Worse, he identified agents who had been recruited for direction and control. These were grave, unforgivable sins in his line of work." These communications also contained classified information, in breach of his secrecy obligations and Australian national security laws.

Witness J plead guilty to the charges and sentenced in the ACT Supreme Court to 2 years, 7 Months jail time. Witness J spent 15 months in the sex-offender's wing of Canberra's Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC), despite not being a sex offender, before being released in mid-2019.

As Witness J's trial was closed to the public under Section 22 of the NSI Act, it was unknown why his court case was held in Canberra, why he was sentenced and what offences he even plead guilty to.

An inquiry was launched into Witness J's secret trial and imprisonment in March 2020 by Australia's Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, James Renwick. However, in April 2020 the inquiry was dropped due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. Renwick had by this time, however, expressed his concerns regarding the trial in a Senate estimates hearing in March 2020:

"As far as we know there has never been another case, at least in peacetime in Australia, where all of it has been conducted in secret. That is something significant and different, and for my part I would not like to see it repeated...There has been an apparently unique set of circumstances whereby a person was charged, arraigned, pleaded guilty, sentenced, and has served his sentence with minimal public knowledge of the details of the crime."

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