27 February 2004

Blix, Butler 'bugged'

The British or US intelligence services monitored former United Nations chief weapons inspector Hans Blix's mobile phone whenever he was in Iraq, sources have told the ABC.

A key Australian official at the heart of attempts to locate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Richard Butler, has also told the ABC that he was bugged while carrying out delicate international negotiations with the Iraqis.

The revelations come after former British cabinet minister Clare Short said the British intelligence service had spied on United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan as the United States and Britain tried to win UN support for invading Iraq.

Andrew Fowler from the ABC's Investigative Unit says sources have told him that Australia's Office of National Assessments has read transcripts of Dr Blix's phone conversations in Iraq.

'That's what I'm told, specifically each time he entered Iraq his phone was targeted and recorded and the transcripts were then made available to the United States, Australia, Canada, the UK and also New Zealand,' Mr Fowler said.

A spokesman for Prime Minister John Howard refused to comment on the claims. Mr Howard's spokesman says the Government does not confirm nor deny matters relating to intelligence.

The Foreign Minister will not say whether Australia had secret intelligence information on United Nations officials before the war in Iraq.

Alexander Downer says no government minister should ever discuss such operational matters.

It's a reasonable principle that no minister should comment on intelligence matters under normal circumstances. It is not a normal circumstance when a government cites intelligence to justify a war and that intelligence is then proved wrong.

If the Australian government had access to such transcripts then it knew a great deal more about Blix' inspections than it has admitted before now. Among other things it knew that:

  • Blix was not being given full access to CIA WMD information
  • Blix was being given full access to Iraqi facilities and sites
  • Blix was not finding WMDs where the US and UK said there were WMDs to be found

It is untrue that no minister has been prepared to comment on 'operational matters'. When ADF Brigadier-General Steve Meekin commented on the mythical aluminium tubes Senator Hill was quick to disavow the comment, even though Kay later told Panorama the tubes claim was based on 'straws of evidence' reported the tubes were not for nuclear purposes. Evidently there's a subsection in the rule against comment that excepts material that supports the government's position from the general rule.

There comes a point at which ministerial responsibility cannot cower and splutter any longer behind refusing to comment.

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