A Pink Panther-style undercover FBI operation last year against a former U.S. Navy whistle-blower living in Australia was proper, Canberra’s defense ministry says--a finding promptly rejected by the country’s own federal police.
The rare public row erupted after the redacted defense ministry report was obtained and published over the weekend by Australia’s Fairfax Media organization, owner of the Sidney Morning Herald and several other prominent news outlets.
The defense ministry report claims that the Australian Federal Police, or AFP, had given permission for an FBI agent to visit the Canberra home of Gwenyth Todd, a former Pentagon, White House and U.S. Navy national security adviser, and question her.
Todd, now married to an Australian military officer, had blown the whistle on a secret plan by top US navy admirals in 2007 to spring a confrontational fleet maneuver on Iran.
Todd’s security clearance was later revoked under mysterious circumstances. In my 5,500-word Washington Post Sunday Magazine piece in August, she claimed the move was retaliatory. The officers involved declined to comment to the Post.
In his Feb. 2011 visit to the home of Todd and her husband, the FBI agent used a false name and portrayed himself as a U.S. consular official investigating Chinese and Russian hacking of American passports.
Only days earlier, Todd, a Middle East expert, had been quoted in the New York Times criticising U.S. support for the monarchy in Bahrain, where she had once been a top adviser to the Navy's Fifth Fleet until she was effectively fired.
When the agent returned the next day, he admitted that he’d been trying to entice Todd into coming into the American embassy for questioning on her relationship with Robert Cabelly, a former State Department official who had been secretly indicted on charges of illegal business relations with Sudan.
She refused, and her husband, Capt. Charles Huxtable, immediately reported the incident to the defense ministry in a confidential email.
“I am concerned about this from two angles. firstly, as an Australian citizen, I am concerned that a member of the FBI should be posing as a consular official with a dubious cover [and should] try and question someone in their own home. The FBI has no jurisdiction in Australia, and supposedly has a relationship with the Australian Federal Police, yet there was no AFP officer present, and he appeared he could simple [sic] enter our home and question Gwenyth without reference to Australian authorities.”
In its report, the Australian Defense Security Agency claimed that ''based on information provided by the US Embassy and the AFP, the visit to [Ms Todd's] home by Mr Spencer” -- the FBI agent -- “was legitimate and within his authority in Australia''.
The DSA further claimed that an AFP representative told it that the AFP “had received prior notification of the FBI's intended activities in relation to Ms Todd.
“She further confirmed that Mr Spencer was not accompanied by a member of the AFP as he was not attempting to utilise any police powers and was operating within his authority in Australia,” the DSA claimed.
But the AFP publicly rejected that.
“The AFP was not aware, and did not endorse the FBI officer visiting this person without being accompanied by a member of the AFP,'' an agency spokeswoman told Dylan Welch, national security correspondent for Fairfax Media, publisher of the Sidney Morning Herald and other prominent papers, who broke the Todd stories.
''The AFP was not aware of the intention of the FBI officer to pass himself off as a consular officer, or to inappropriately or inaccurately identify himself.''
Todd was outraged by this latest turn of events.
''I can't imagine why America allowed [the FBI agent] to get away with it, and even further I can't imagine how Australia would allow an American to run roughshod over them,” she was quoted as saying by Welch.
Saskia Hufnagel of Griffith University's Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security, told Welch that the FBI agent’s clumsy probe, which quickly became public shortly after it occurred, violated US-Australian law enforcement protocol.
''If there was an ongoing American investigation and they were questioning this lady as part of the American investigation and they didn't ask the Australian police … then they breached Australian sovereignty,'' she said.
''He is, in some way, exerting US powers in a country which is not a US jurisdiction.''
The American embassy had no comment.