Secret prisoner Witness J’s claims of mental health neglect rejected

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The spy watchdog has cleared an Australian intelligence agency over complaints it failed to provide appropriate mental health support when one of its officers had a career-ending breakdown on an overseas posting.

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) found no evidence that a former intelligence officer, known as Witness J, had been refused requests for help.

But Witness J, possibly the only person in Australian criminal history to be tried, sentenced and imprisoned in secret, has rejected the Inspector-General’s findings, suggesting she had been duped by “highly manipulative professional liars”.

Witness J, a man in his mid-30s, spent 15 months in prison after pleading guilty to several offences under the Intelligence Services Act.

His promising career, which had seen him serve in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, collapsed on a civilian posting to the Australian Embassy in a South-East Asian country, which the ABC will not identify for security reasons.

His top security clearance was being reviewed and concerns about the way he was conducting himself as a single man were raised.

He had taken an Easter trip to Singapore with a woman he had met on a language training course, without written approval and with a phone he should not have taken out of the country without first notifying the agency.

In late 2017, he was told he would be recalled to Canberra. Furious, he emailed complaints over an unsecured network back to HQ in Australia, to the agency’s head of security and a departmental psychologist.

He named colleagues whose behaviour, he claimed, was more egregious than his own, including the use of prostitutes and strippers.

Worse, his employer claims Witness J’s communications back to Canberra risked identifying foreigners who had been recruited to act as agents for Australia — considered a heinous sin in his line of work.

Witness J claims this incident coincided with a mental health crisis, perhaps triggered by the deaths of two close family members and his military service in war zones including alongside elite special forces soldiers in Operation OKRA, Australia’s contribution to the fight against Islamic State.

He claims he three times sought assistance from his employer for his mental health crisis while on the posting and that the agency failed in its duty of care to him.

A man in a suit with a blurred out face stands in a foyer above a floor plaque for the CIA
Witness J at CIA headquarters at Langley in Virginia.(Supplied)

But IGIS, which investigated his claims between August last year and June this year, found in favour of his employer.

A short summary of the IGIS report on Witness J’s complaint was quietly uploaded to the Inspector-General’s website is recent days. But it is so sanitised of identifying information, you have to know what you are looking at for it to have any context or meaning.

Even its title is stripped of significance: “Inquiry Into an Intelligence Agency Matter”.

“In regards to the matters under investigation, the inquiry found evidence contrary to the allegations made and, in all the circumstances, no evidence to support the allegations made against the agency,” IGIS says in a 449-word summary.

“The agency did not refuse any requests for support and, furthermore, there was a reasonable level of access by the complainant to psychological support. The inquiry concluded that, in the circumstances, the agency took all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health and safety of its employee.”

It is unclear how the findings may affect Witness J’s pursuit of a settlement with his former employer. It is understood he wants compensation for the 455 days he spent in prison, mostly in the Alexander Maconochie Centre’s sexual-offenders’ wing, where it was deemed he would be safest.

Margaret Stone, whose five-year term as Inspector-General ended August 23, conducted “multiple in-depth witness interviews”, according to the summary, and “reviewed many thousands of the agency’s classified records relevant to the inquiry”.

It is understood this included text messages, phone records and other communications related to Witness J.

“The inquiry highlighted the importance of intelligence agencies having a robust system of mental health and welfare support services in place, and ensuring that these are readily available to employees and subject to regular review and improvement,” she says in the summary.

A silver Operational Service Medal with green, purple and yellow ribbon sits in a black box
Witness J’s earned the Operational Service Medal while fighting Islamic State in the Middle East.(ABC News: David Sciasci)

Ms Stone made one undisclosed recommendation, which the agency has accepted.

This is believed to be a recommendation to the effect that the agency better assist employees who are seeking help for mental health issues.

“IGIS continues to engage with the agency and seeks regular updates,” Ms Stone’s summary says.

“IGIS will continue to monitor the adequacy of mental health and welfare support provided by this agency and intelligence agencies in general.”

IGIS is an independent statutory office holder who reviews the activities of the six Commonwealth intelligence agencies, known collectively as the “Australian Intelligence Community”.

This group comprises the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation (AGO), Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) and the Office of National Intelligence (ONI)

Witness J said the IGIS findings did not surprise him but his pursuit for the “truth” would continue.

“The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security was not taken seriously when I was in the agency, and I have as much confidence in this report as I do in the recent Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force report into war crimes in Afghanistan, which claimed they found nothing when in fact we now know that is factually not the case,” he told the ABC.

“From this point on, both myself and my legal team are even more vigorously engaged in bringing my former agency to account for their gross negligence in mismanaging my mental health crisis. The unsurprising failure of the Inspector-General to discern the truth is fuel for this ongoing fight. The truth is going to come out one way or the other.”

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