12 February 2004

Spy agencies to face new WMD inquiry

Australia's spy agencies can expect an external inquiry into their handling of intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction within months.

The Howard Government is expected to agree to an independent inquiry into the Australian agencies' assessment of secret reports from US and British intelligence bodies after a parliamentary committee reports next month.

The committee's findings are unanimous, without the usual dissenting report on political lines, and a recommendation for an independent inquiry is expected.

The bipartisan parliamentary intelligence committee - chaired by former Howard government minister David Jull and including former Labor leader and defence minister Kim Beazley - is highly regarded, and its findings and recommendations will be hard for the Coalition to resist.

The Government and intelligence agencies may not accept all the findings of the report, but John Howard is likely to follow the examples of US President George W.Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and order an inquiry into the intelligence agencies' collection and analysis of information about Iraq's chemical weapons and nuclear capability.

Pressure has grown for an independent inquiry and an explanation as to how Australian troops were committed to the war in Iraq, and why no evidence of chemical weapons stockpiles has been found since.

The Prime Minister continued yesterday to defend the Government's decision and did not rule out an independent inquiry.

'I take the opportunity of repeating that the decision taken by the Government was the right decision. It was based on the intelligence available to us at the time. I have no regrets of any description about that decision,' Mr Howard told parliament.

'The world is better off as a result of what we did and this Government has nothing to apologise for.'

The world will be better off, if and only if, Iraq becomes a better place in the long run and that is yet to be seen. So is any long term damage to the credibility of the US and its intelligence. It's also yet to be seen what impact the Iraq war will have on Australia's standing in our region where sheriff's stars may not be a badge of popularity.

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