'Top secret' Australian files discovered in cabinets from secondhand shop

The Australian government has launched an urgent investigation into the loss of thousands of classified documents that were sold with two second-hand filing cabinets.

Documents cover everything from Canberra's intelligence priorities to efforts to stop asylum seekers

Tourists walk around Australia's Parliament House in Canberra on Oct. 16. Officials are investigating how filing cabinets filled with secret documents wound up in a local secondhand furniture store. (David Gray/Reuters)

The Australian government on Wednesday launched an urgent investigation into the loss of thousands of classified documents that were sold with two second-hand filing cabinets.

The cabinets were sold by a Canberra furniture shop at a discount price because they were locked and no one could find the keys, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

The ABC has not identified the buyer who removed the locks with a drill. The buyer found thousands of Cabinet documents spanning more than a decade and four prime ministers — the most recent being Tony Abbott, who was replaced in 2015 by current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Several businesses trade in what is described as ex-government furniture in Canberra, the national capital.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said the department boss initiated an urgent investigation into the disposal of the filing cabinets.

The ABC reported nearly all the documents are classified. The classifications include "top secret," "sensitive," "Australian eyes only" and "cabinet-in-confidence."

Embarrassing coverage

The ABC has not said when the documents were found. But it has used them in recent weeks to report stories that have been embarrassing to the former administrations of Kevin Rudd and Abbott, as well as a number of serving lawmakers.

Questioned about the ABC's reporting of Cabinet documents on Tuesday, Turnbull told reporters, "I think they've come across someone's bottom drawer in Canberra."

Coverage of the secret files has been embarrassing to some of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's recent predecessors. (Rick Rycroft/Associated Press)

The state-owned broadcaster said it had chosen not to report some documents on national-security grounds.

The documents cover Australia's intelligence priorities and counterterrorism planning. They detail missile upgrades, profiles of suspected militants and Australia's desire in 2010 for more co-operation from Indonesia in stopping asylum seekers reaching Australian shores in fishing boats, the ABC said.

One document refers to an audit that revealed the Australian Federal Police had lost almost 400 national security files over five years ending 2013.

More files lost

The documents also reveal that a former finance minister left 195 top-secret papers in her old office when her government was voted out in 2013.

The papers left in the office — but not included with the sold filing cabinets — included Middle East defence plans, national security briefs, Afghan war updates, intelligence on Australia's neighbours and details of counterterrorism operations.

Australian Cabinet documents are usually kept secret for 20 years, before they are made public in a heavily redacted form.

Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University's National Security College, described the discarded documents as "very weird and embarrassing" from a national security and political perspective.

Australia's allies, including the United States, "would be concerned, but I wouldn't overstate it," Metcalf said.

"This is not catastrophically damaging for national security in the sense that something like the Snowden revelations must have been," he added, a reference to former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's disclosure of a cache of classified material in 2013.