Sold at a discount price, two filing cabinets containing state secrets have become a major embarrassment for the Australian government.
Australian secret service officers seized hundreds of classified documents from Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) bureaus in three cities on Thursday as part of a probe into how top-secret government papers were mistakenly sold, along with two discarded filing cabinets through a second-hand furniture shop, officials said.
Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) officers seized documents from ABC bureaus in Parliament House in the capital, Canberra, and in the cities of Brisbane and Melbourne, the state-owned broadcaster said.
Hours earlier, ASIO had provided document safes to the ABC offices to safeguard the files while lawyers negotiated over what to do with the papers that include Cabinet secrets spanning almost a decade.
ASIO did not respond to questions from AP on Thursday.
ABC revealed Wednesday it had thousands of Cabinet documents that had been found inside surplus government filing cabinets.
The cabinets were sold at a discount price because they were locked and no one could find keys, ABC reported.
ABC reported that ASIO seized hundreds of the documents on Thursday, but it was not immediately clear whether all were retrieved.
The documents were seized as part of an agreement struck with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's department, which is investigating how the documents came to be sold through a Canberra shop, ABC and the government said in a joint statement.
"This has been achieved without compromising the ABC's priority of protecting the integrity of its source and its reporting, while acknowledging the Commonwealth's national security interests," the joint statement said.
ABC has not identified the buyer of the cabinets, who removed the locks with a drill and found classified papers spanning almost a decade and four prime ministers, the most recent being Tony Abbott. Abbott was replaced in 2015 by Turnbull.
Abbott, who remains a lawmaker, had argued that the documents should be returned in the national interest and those who discarded them should be punished.
"It's not so much a Cabinet leak as a leaked cabinet," Abbott said.
Media lawyer Nicholas Pullen questioned whether the ABC was legally obliged to return them.
"It presents one of the greatest legal minefields I've seen in a long time," Pullen told Ten Network television.
"These documents have been abandoned and I think that's why the authorities have taken a novel approach to this because there is a very gray area in who actually owns these documents," he added.
The prime minister said police were involved in his department's investigation.
"It's a dreadful failure of responsibility," Turnbull said. "The people responsible will pay a heavy price, I can assure you."
The papers' classifications include "top secret," "sensitive," ''Australian eyes only," and "Cabinet-in-confidence," the ABC reported.
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 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Abbott as well as a number of serving lawmakers.
Rudd, who has retired from politics, announced on Thursday that he was taking legal action against the ABC over one report.
ABC, which is state-owned but operates independently, said it had chosen not to report some documents on national security grounds.
Australian Cabinet documents are usually kept secret for 20 years, before they are made public in a heavily redacted form.