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Off the Books: how the Army privatised SAS elite to dark ops outfit Omni

by Stuart McCarthy | May 4, 2024 | Government, Latest Posts

Former SAS officers referred to national corruption watchdog over $230 million in government contracts to private security and intelligence “front company” Omni Executive. A Stuart McCarthy investigation.

Three former senior Australian SAS officers have been referred to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) over a series of multi-million dollar federal government security and intelligence contracts awarded to the private security company Omni Executive Pty Ltd.

According to the company’s website, Omni was established in 2012 and focuses on “delivering innovative national security, intelligence and critical infrastructure solutions to further our national interests.”

Since 2015, Omni has been awarded more than $230 million in security and intelligence related contracts by the departments of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Home Affairs, Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission.

Omni contracts hidden

More than $100 million in contracts appear to have been awarded to the company through limited or non-competitive tender. Contract notices for government contracts awarded to the company from 2012 to 2015 are not publicly available, although some sources suggest Omni may have initially been engaged as a subcontractor by another defence and security consulting firm. In a written statement, an Omni spokesperson told MWM:

“Due to the sensitive nature of some of the contracts and tenders, some details are not made public in accordance with standard government practice.”

Speaking to MWM on condition of anonymity, several former Australian Defence Force officers who served in Special Operations Command and the Australian Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan during the period when Omni was established in late 2012 have also raised concerns about conflicts of interest, a lack of public oversight and the questionable legality of some of the taxpayer-funded activities undertaken by Omni.

The question of conflicts of interest was raised by one former officer who says that Omni employs a former permanent Air Force senior intelligence officer, now a currently serving Air Force reservist.

SAS regiment compromised?

These former officers, other independent sources and the NACC referral suggest that Omni was created after the SAS regiment’s secretive 4 Squadron was compromised when classified details of its activities in Africa were leaked to Fairfax Media in 2012.

The squadron was raised in 2005 under the Howard Government. In late 2010 Defence Minister Stephen Smith reportedly authorised 4 Squadron’s covert deployments to Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe, responding to the growing threat from the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Shabaab terrorist group in Africa.

Kevin Rudd interview with the ABC in February 2011, calling for Muammar Gaddafi to be referred to the International Criminal Court

Kevin Rudd interview with the ABC in February 2011, calling for Muammar Gaddafi to be referred to the International Criminal Court

The Fairfax stories reported that Smith and Defence chief David Hurley thwarted a 2011 proposal from then Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd to deploy elements of 4 Squadron to Libya to support the NATO-led military intervention that saw the demise of the Muammar Gaddafi regime.

The CIA had been covertly supporting Libyan forces opposed to Gaddafi and identifying targets for NATO airstrikes. A team of British SAS soldiers and MI6 officers performing a similar role in Libya were captured.

Rudd had publicly called for Gaddafi to be referred to the International Criminal Court, saying of the UN Security Council’s reluctance to support his calls: “I presume it’s the concern, on the part of some, about precedents set in the future for references to the International Criminal Court for other countries in the world.” According to the Sydney Morning Herald in March 2011:

“Behind the scenes, [Prime Minister] Gillard’s office has been in despair at Mr Rudd’s public comments, saying his repeated interventions on Libya have come without the knowledge or approval of the Prime Minister.”

Smith, Hurley and Gillard were told

Stephen Smith was Minister for Defence in the Rudd-Gillard Government from 2010 to 2013. Last year he co-authored the Defence Strategic Review for the Albanese Government, before commencing his current appointment as the Australian High Commissioner to the UK. Former Prime Minister Rudd is now the Australian Ambassador to the US. In 2012 Smith, Hurley and Gillard were also informed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, of apparent SAS war crimes in Afghanistan.

The former special forces officers we spoke to have described a “murky arrangement” that transpired between senior officers in headquarters Special Operations Command and senior Omni staff from the company’s inception in late 2012 until it became fully operational in mid-2015. One source says:

“The lines seemed very blurry. And they seemed to have cracked some sort of code – [Omni] does dodgy stuff for Defence so they can pretend it’s not them, even though they provide [Omni] with everything [they] need. A win-win arrangement.”

Details of the funding sources for Omni’s establishment and initial operating costs remain unclear, however another former special forces officer says, “They pretty much came in and bought 4 Squadron off the shelf as a going concern.”

Signals intelligence, electronic warfare and secure communications equipment were transferred to Omni. Most of the civilian logistics and procurement staff and some of the 4 Squadron military personnel became Omni employees.

Military 4 Squadron personnel who attended high-level government mission briefings in Canberra were excluded from discussions between Omni staff and senior government officials, despite having the necessary security clearances. One source says:

“It was like a corporate raid, only in this case ‘national security’ was the pretext for keeping uniformed special forces people out of the room and away from the Omni corporate raiders.”

A copy of the NACC referral obtained by MWM says explicitly that Omni was established as a “front company” in 2012 to enable Special Operations Command or other government intelligence activities in South East Asia or elsewhere, without a compromising ADF military signature.

Off the books

According to the complaint, SAS surveillance and communications equipment was purchased by Omni “so it wasn’t on the Department of Defence’s books.” The complaint alleges “senior SOCOMD officers gave preferential treatment to [Omni CEO] Jon Hawkins,” and “there were clear conflicts of interest and breaches of Commonwealth procurement guidelines.”

The NACC referral also raises concerns Omni may be conducting domestic surveillance on behalf of the Australian Government’s national security and law enforcement agencies without proper oversight. Omni says the company “is not aware of any investigation by the NACC” and declined to answer questions on any previous or current surveillance activities.

Omni now has offices in Canberra, Brisbane and Perth, and operates aircraft from Jandakot airport in Western Australia, as well as Caboolture and Roma airports in Queensland. A current federal government directory lists the Omni general manager’s work address at Defence headquarters in Russell Offices, Canberra.

And medals too

MWM can confirm that at least two of the former SAS officers named in the NACC referral were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross – one of Australia’s highest military decorations – for command and leadership in Afghanistan.

One of these two led the 2001 SAS boarding of the Norwegian container ship MV Tampa, which had rescued 433 mainly Hazara asylum seekers en route to Christmas Island after they had fled Afghanistan from the resurgent Taliban.

The following year, this officer served in a command role during a 2002 incident reported in Time magazine, in which a SAS patrol allegedly killed 11 innocent Afghan tribesmen and wounded 16 others. That incident took place in Khost province during a US-led operation against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan in the early phases of the war.

The officer later served in a senior command appointment at the headquarters of Special Operations Command when Omni was established by one of his SAS officer colleagues. He is now a senior public servant in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The David McBride connection

Another former SAS officer named in the NACC complaint served in a senior command role in the Australian Special Operations Task Group deployment to Afghanistan in 2012. According to an ABC story, during this deployment, his SAS soldiers allegedly killed unarmed civilians in a raid targeting a suspected Taliban bomb maker in Uruzgan province.

An internal ADF investigation found that the dead locals were combatants, however an investigation by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission found that the local civilians were wrongfully killed. Classified documents relating to the internal ADF investigation were among the ‘Afghan Files’ leaked by whistleblower David McBride to ABC investigative reporter Dan Oakes.

Marking the ten-year anniversary of Omni’s establishment, the company’s CEO Jon Hawkins, wrote in 2022:

“Omni has built a reputation as a trusted partner to Government and the private sector, providing solutions across land, air, sea, space and cyber domains to protect individuals, corporates and the national interest from an ever-growing list of traditional and non-traditional threats.”

Former military legal officer turned international lawyer and defence analyst Dr Glenn Kolomeitz, who also served with the SOTG in Afghanistan, says of the NACC referral:

“In general terms and without referring to any particular company, the NACC referral raises broader concerns as to the possibility that the government, in awarding contracts to private companies undertaking national security activities, might enable such companies to be established free from the the normal channels of parliamentary scrutiny applicable to [those] activities.”

Brereton fail

Kolomeitz, who authored last year’s referral of senior ADF commanders to the International Criminal Court prosecutor over higher command responsibility for alleged SOTG war crimes in Afghanistan, further says of this complaint:

“This also highlights the festering sore of the Albanese government’s abject failure to address command impunity for the Afghanistan war crimes documented in the Brereton Report. The findings of that report regarding command responsibility lack credibility.”

The 2020 Brereton Report found evidence of 39 murders of civilians and detainees by Australian special forces during the war in Afghanistan, but absolved all senior officers of any criminal culpability for their command failures. Retired Major General Paul Brereton is now the National Anti-Corruption Commissioner.

Responding to questions about this referral citing the referral number, a NACC spokesperson said the commission “does not provide information to third parties about the receipt, status or existence of individual referrals.”

Dr Glenn Kolomeitz speaking to Sky News Australia in 2023 on the referral of senior ADF commanders to the International Criminal Court

Dr Glenn Kolomeitz speaking to Sky News Australia in 2023 on the referral of senior ADF commanders to the International Criminal Court

This story does not allege any wrongdoing on the part of the former SAS officers named in the complaint, Omni employees, Smith or other government officials.

However, Kolomeitz says, “serious questions need to be asked about government probity and the continued prosecution of David McBride.”

McBride is due to face sentencing in the ACT Supreme Court next week for offences similar to the 2012 classified information leaks from Rudd-Gillard government officials to Fairfax on 4 Squadron’s activities in Africa.

The individuals responsible for those leaks appear not to have been subjected to any disciplinary action. When asked by MWM about the 2012 classified information leaks and the establishment of Omni, spokespersons for Ambassador Rudd and High Commissioner Smith declined to comment.

Behind the McBride prosecution

A Defence official who spoke to MWM on condition of anonymity, says that Omni “seems desperate for people with positively vetted security clearances.” Positive vetting is required for access to the most highly classified government intelligence information, in order to protect top secret signals intelligence, electronic warfare and human intelligence sources and capabilities.

This information is often shared between the ‘five eyes’ agencies of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Omni is currently advertising “TSPV [top secret – positively vetted] Opportunities” open to the end of this year on its careers portal.

Concern over the potential compromise of classified 5-eyes material is believed to be one of the motivations behind the government’s prosecution of McBride, however the Court proceedings in this case have been held under secrecy provisions invoked by the Attorney-General.

Key evidence has also been removed from McBride’s defence lawyers on the grounds the evidence had the potential to jeopardise “the security and defence of Australia” if released.

The positive security vetting process includes personal and sensitive aspects of an applicant’s life, such as relationships, finances, associations and psychological assessments. In July 2021, Defence awarded an open tender, three-year $16 million contract to Omni for security and personal safety vetting services.

This contract was increased by $14 million in August 2022, then increased by a further $12 million in August last year.

According to the company’s website, Omni’s small fleet of helicopters and light fixed-wing aircraft offer “real-time situational awareness through manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) solutions.” The aircraft is “fully equipped with advanced aerial surveillance equipment, including daylight and infra-red full motion video, augmented reality systems and contemporary technology to exploit the information environment.”

Omni Aerospace Pty Ltd Cessna C208 ‘Caravan’

Omni Aerospace Pty Ltd Cessna C208 ‘Caravan’

Another contract cited in the NACC referral is a $675,000 limited tender contract awarded to Omni by Defence in June last year, for the provision of powered fixed wing aircraft for “project support” over a ten month period. This amount was increased by $608,000 in February this year. Limited tender procurement was used by Defence “due to an absence of competition for technical reasons.”

Omni currently operates two registered Cessna C208 ‘Caravan’ fixed wing aircraft. MWM can reveal that at least one of these aircraft – registration VH-OEZ – was fitted with signals intelligence equipment capable of geolocating communications devices transmitting cellular or WiFi signals, in addition to the full motion video and communications capabilities outlined on the company’s website and promotional videos.

MWM also approached former signals intelligence operator Braden Chapman, who served in 4 Squadron for five years, including two deployments to Afghanistan with SOTG. “All I can confirm,” said Chapman, “is that Omni was active in 4 Squadron before 2015 because I remember a specific incident while flying on that aircraft in 2014.”

Flying beneath the radar

Although this aircraft is registered to undertake “aerial work” under Civil Aviation Safety Regulations part 138, MWM can reveal there are no records of any flights held by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and Omni has never been subjected to a CASA audit. This lack of audit history suggests CASA has not regularly reviewed the company’s maintenance release or flight log details as part of the air safety regulator’s national oversight plan. Omni says the company “strictly adheres to government compliance and regulation obligations.”

One of the former special forces officers who spoke to MWM says that the titles of the government contracts awarded to Omni suggest most, if not all, are likely to have been for domestic Australian protective security and intelligence activities. However, he added:

“Some of the company’s aircraft are certainly capable of supporting surveillance or clandestine operations in places like Papua New Guinea or Indonesia, under the pretext of natural resource or infrastructure surveys, international aid or training activities.”

Another of the former Special Operations Command officers MWM spoke to says of the relationship that emerged between Omni and senior government officials:

“These quasi-renegade elements on the inside think they’re doing the right thing, justified by preferring known or trusted entities. This arrangement is based on service loyalties rather than Commonwealth value for money requirements for the expenditure of public monies.”

In 2004 the Australian Secret Intelligence Service planted covert listening devices in a room adjacent to the East Timor Prime Minister’s office, during sensitive negotiations with the Australian Government over the Timor Sea oil and gas treaty, under the cover of a DFAT-funded international aid project.

Human rights organisations have also historically criticised Defence for SAS involvement in training Indonesia’s Kopassus special forces unit, which has been accused of atrocities in East Timor, Irian Jaya and elsewhere.

Former Prime Minister Gillard and the departments who have awarded $230 million in government security and intelligence related contracts to Omni since 2015 have also been asked for comment, including the office of Prime Minister Albanese. A spokesperson for the AFP says it has “no comment,” while DFAT says “we are unable to provide a response to your query.”

______________________________

Full statement from Omni Executive Pty Ltd

“Omni is an Australian-owned business delivering innovative defence, national security, intelligence and critical infrastructure solutions to further Australia’s national interest. Omni delivers cutting-edge technology and pioneering solutions in support of Australia’s sovereign capability. Omni is a proud veteran employer, providing the highest levels of professional services to our clients. Omni’s contractual work is secured via approved government procurement processes. This information can be found on the AusTender website. Due to the sensitive nature of some of the contracts and tenders, some details are not made public in accordance with standard government practice. This is consistent with other defence services organisations and service providers. Omni strictly adheres to government compliance and regulation obligations. Omni is not aware of any investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission.”

They didn’t know, really? Pursue top brass over alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, says veteran

Stuart McCarthy is a medically retired Australian Army officer whose 28-year military career included deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Stuart is an advocate for veterans with brain injury, disabilities, drug trial subjects and abuse survivors. Twitter: @StuartMcCarthy_

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