1 June 2004

Defence chiefs come clean on abuse

Major O'Kane made five visits to Abu Ghraib jail outside Baghdad between last August and January 4, some specifically to investigate concerns about abuse of prisoners. Six other Australian military lawyers were also revealed to have visited the jail, where the worst of the abuses by the US military occurred.

Major O'Kane received two Red Cross working papers in October and November, among other material, detailing allegations of abuse. These were passed on to Defence on May 11, but were not drawn to the attention of Senator Hill or the Prime Minister, resulting in them making false statements.

Defence officials in Canberra were told on December 4 that Major O'Kane went to Abu Ghraib 'in response to concerns raised by the [Red Cross] about conditions at the prison'.

Major O'Kane made more than 10 references to his work with the Red Cross to his Australian military superiors in Iraq in weekly reports but he never expressed concerns that the complaints were serious.

A Defence survey of its officers asked only if they were aware of abuses such as those shown in graphic images revealed by the media in late April. The survey was used to deny any knowledge of 'abuse or serious mistreatment' by Australians.

The Chief of the Defence Force, General Cosgrove, endorsed the removal of a photograph from the Defence website showing Major O'Kane outside Abu Ghraib soon after the abuse scandal went public.

Major O'Kane advised on interrogation techniques last August.

The Secretary to the Department of Defence, Ric Smith, and General Cosgrove were also shown to have made misleading statements about when Australians became aware of the abuses. They issued a statement on Friday night saying no Australians were aware of 'abuse or serious mistreatment' before January.

Senator Hill stressed that no Australians had taken part in torture and said the abuses that Major O'Kane dealt with were not as bad as those uncovered in April. But he admitted that the Red Cross complaints in October and November painted a 'grim picture' of detention practices.

I think I am beginning to understand why Sen Hill refused to produce Major O'Kane before the Senate committee. Hill's admissions also prove the prime minister's answer in the House last week untrue. The O'Kane affair is fast settling into the customary Man of Steel technique of governance.

1. Deny everything. 2. Admit it when it becomes unavoidable. 3. Insist you never got the papers. 4. Blame everything on the troops.

All we are really seeing now is an effort to build a firewall around O'Kane to preserve the plausibility of various government claims. The mendacity of those claims is no longer arguable.

The transcript (large PDF) of the Senate Budget Estimates Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade is now online. More later.

Update 2
The Man of Steel has corrected his answer of last week. Text when available.

Update 3
The transcript (large PDF) of Day 2 the Senate Budget Estimates Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade is now online. More later.

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