13 September 2003

Australia was told: war will fuel terror

Intelligence given to Australia before the Iraq War warned that the terrorist threat would increase if military action was launched against Saddam Hussein, contradicting repeated assertions by the Prime Minister.

The revelation - disclosed after a British parliamentary committee released details of a top-secret assessment by British intelligence chiefs - raises new questions about whether the public was deliberately misled in the lead-up to the conflict.

Handed to the Blair Government on February 10, six weeks before the war started, the assessment by the high-level Joint Intelligence Committee debunked several of the key arguments used by the 'coalition of the willing' to justify going to war against Iraq.

'The JIC assessed that al-Qaeda and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq,' the British parliamentary report says.

The JIC report, International Terrorism: War with Iraq, also said there was no evidence Saddam Hussein wanted to use any chemical or biological weapons in terrorist attacks or that he planned to pass them on to al-Qaeda. 'However, it judged that in the event of imminent regime collapse there would be a risk of transfer of such material, whether or not as a deliberate regime policy.'

Under an intelligence-sharing arrangement, Australia receives JIC reports. Mr Howard's refused to confirm that Australian authorities had received the February 10 report, declining to answer verbal or written questions on the issue. But the former senior Office of National Assessments analyst who who quit in protest over the war, Andrew Wilkie, said the ONA 'routinely received JIC assessments and would have received that assessment'. The ONA reports directly to the Prime Minister's office.

Moreover, Mr Wilkie said, its contents were consistent with the view of ONA analysts. 'Because of material like that, and ONA's own work, it was clearly understood there would be an increasing risk of terrorism if Iraq was invaded and this risk was communicated to the Government,' he said.

However, in an address to the nation on the eve of the war, Mr Howard said the exact opposite: 'Far from our action in Iraq increasing the terrorist threat, it will, by stopping the spread of chemical and biological weapons, make it less likely that a devastating terrorist attack will be carried out against Australia.' It was a stand he and his ministers often repeated in the weeks leading up to the war.

I predict a couple of problems here:

  1. the Howard government may claim not to have received the report;
  2. the Howard government may claim to have received the report but that no-one told the prime minister
  3. the Howard government may claim to have intelligence that the report was wrong
  4. the Howard government may claim to have received the report and that the prime minister was told but decided to mislead the parliament on a question of war and peace

I doubt Option 1 has legs. The Blair government is unlikely to support that view and surely the ALP can organise a question in the House of Commons seeking to know if the JIC report was passed onto Australia? The suggestion that Britain would withhold such intelligence is not going to make Anglo-Australian diplomacy all that healthy.

Option 2 seems the most likely course, although I think it will accelerate the erosion in Howard's credibility and that has to become a major issue fairly soon.

Option 3 is a small chance, but anything that restarts the intelligence debate is not good news for the government.

Option 4 may be the truth but I'd be more than mildly surprised if the Howard government elected to pursue this course.

A minister who misleads the parliament must resign. If the prime minister mislead the parliament on a question of war and peace his time in office will be quite short.

Walter Bagehot, in the classic definition of cabinet government, wrote:

But if in these ways, and subject to these exceptions, Parliament by its policy and its speech well embodies and expresses public opinion, I own I think it must be conceded that it is not equally successful in elevating public opinion. The teaching task of Parliament is the task it does worst. Probably at this moment it is natural to exaggerate this defect. The greatest teacher of all in Parliament, the headmaster of the nation, the great elevator of the country�so far as Parliament elevates it�must be the Prime Minister; he has an influence, an authority, a facility in giving a great tone to discussion, or a mean tone, which no other man has. Now Lord Palmerston for many years steadily applied his mind to giving, not indeed a mean tone, but a light tone, to the proceedings of Parliament. One of his greatest admirers has since his death told a story of which he scarcely sees, or seems to see, the full effect. When Lord Palmerston was first made leader of the House, his jaunty manner was not at all popular, and some predicted failure. �No,� said an old member, �he will soon educate us down to his level; the House will soon prefer this Ha! Ha! style to the wit of Canning and the gravity of Peel.� I am afraid that we must own that the prophecy was accomplished. No prime minister, so popular and so influential, has ever left in the public memory so little noble teaching. Twenty years hence, when men inquire as to the then fading memory of Palmerston, we shall be able to point to no great truth which he taught, no great distinct policy he embodied, no noble words which once fascinated his age, and which, in after years, men would not willingly let die. But we shall be able to say �he had a genial manner, a firm, sound sense; he had a kind of cant of insincerity, but we always knew what he meant; he had the brain of a ruler in the clothes of a man of fashion.� Posterity

Unless the British did not give us the JIC report, the prime minister is now in grave ethical difficulty. Claiming that his staff did not give him the JIC report is not going to get him out of that difficulty. The mean tone has its limits as a political strategy.

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