17 March 2004

Terror risk linked to Iraq: ASIO chief

ASIO chief Dennis Richardson says Australia is a terrorist target partly because of its role in the US-led war against terrorism.

But Mr Richardson's comments have not worried the Government, which has moved to end a rift with Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty over the issue.

Commissioner Keelty won praise from the Government after distancing himself from remarks linking the Madrid bombings to Spain's support for the Iraq war.

Mr Richardson says while Australia would have been a terrorist target regardless of its involvement in Iraq, recent events have had an influence.

"We are a target because we are seen to be part of the 'Zionist Christian conspiracy'," Mr Richardson said. "In other words, because we are who we are.

"The fact that we are in close alliance with the United States and the fact that we were early and actively involved in the war on terrorism does contribute to our being a target."

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer is untroubled by the spy chief's comments, saying that "what Dennis Richardson says is exactly what I say - we were a target long before the Iraq war".

Mr Downer says terrorists have focused on Australia because it is a Western democratic country.

Traditionally the armed forces and the police stayed out of politics. I doubt Keelty thought he was saying anything especially political until he got the call from Sinodinos, the prime minister's chief of staff. In fact, if you look at his comment he was not. It's also a disgrace that the Man of Steel chose to carpet Keelty by having an unelected political adviser sink the boot.

When Cosgrove entered the debate it was already a topic of partisan controversy and his contribution, as on other occasions, supported the government's position.

That does not detract from the respect earned Cosgrove earned as Interfet's commander. It does suggest he's a better general than politician and that's the way it should be.

The guts of the issue is the government's willingness to politicise intelligence by quoting it selectively. The parliamentary committee noted that before the war the government published intelligence that supported it's position and withheld the qualifications and exceptions that intelligence included. Paras 5.22, 5.23

One deleted qualification was the JIC finding that an Iraq war would increase the level of terrorism. Para 4.29 This current dispute is just a subset of that whole argument. The problem is not Cosgrove commenting or Keelty commenting, the problem is the government's drive to present a partisan opinion as the unanimous conclusion of all intelligence agencies, a process also noted by the parliamentary committee.

It would be better to go back to the old convention that ministers, not officials, speak on government policy, and to set up a system of opposition and third party security briefings (as happens in London) to ensure ministers distinguish between speaking on first principles and quoting official advice.

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