Dissembling Down Under

Australia answers charges that it overstated the facts in making its case for war. Sound familiar?


The special committee investigating the shaky intelligence on which the Bush administration built its case for war won’t return a verdict until well after the November election. That’s not the case in Australia, where a nonpartisan parliamentary panel has cleared the conservative government of exercising overt political pressure over intelligence agencies or “sexing up” intelligence reports in the run up to war. Not that Prime Minister John Howard is being given a complete pass. The committee has accused his government of “overstating” its case for war, criticizing its over-reliance on alarmist and (as it turned out) unsubstantiated U.S. and British intelligence reports.

“…The case made by the Government was that Iraq possessed WMD in
large quantities and posed a grave and unacceptable threat to the region and the
world… This is not the picture that emerges from an examination of all the
assessments provided to the committee by Australia’s two analytical agencies.”

Predictably, Howard downplayed the criticisms while hailing the committee’s
findings as a vindication of his policies. Summing up his version of the report for the Australian Broadcasting Service Howard said it has “completely denied the 12-month claim of the [opposition] Labor Party that we
went to war based on a lie. … That is the most important thing that the
committee has done.”

But it’s unlikely that Howard will be able to dodge the issue that easily. The committee raised questions about whether covert political pressure was
applied on Australian intelligence agencies, particularly the prime minister’s
Office of National Assessments (ONA). Bot the lingering suspicions of political
pressures on the intelligence community and the poor quality of the available
intelligence were highlighted by the committee, prompting its
recommendation — and Howard’s acceptance — of yet another investigation. As committee chairman and former Liberal minister
David Jull told the Melbourne Age:

“It appeared that ONA, particularly after September 13, was more
ready to extrapolate a threatening scenario from historical experience, more
ready to accept the new and mostly untested intelligence…”

The new committee will have a broader mandate to examine the work of the country’s intelligence services in order to “ensure the maintenance of their independence and objectivity.” As a former director of the
Defense Intelligence Organization (DIO)
Pauld Dibb said, “The question in my mind – and indeed others’ minds – is are these agencies now
too close to the politicians?”

That’s a remarkably healthy question — one which the panel being formed by President Bush might be wise to consider. Australian intelligence reports were characterized as more considered than their British and American counterparts, but the committee questioned the reason for ONA’s switch in September of 2002 to a more alarmist stance closely mirroring that taken by London and Washington. As Carl Ungerer, a senior Iraq WMD analyst at the ONA from 1999 to 2002, argued in
the Australian:

“In Australia, intelligence analysts
tend to be cautious about WMD claims. There were serious doubts expressed about
some of the judgments that were being made in Washington and London.

But in the spring of 2002, ONA appears to have been captured by
the prevailing political winds – unwilling or unable to present the warts and all case to the Prime Minister in the months before the war. ONA has engaged in what some call ‘faith-based’ intelligence – a willingness to overlook the inaccuracies in the intelligence material and not to question the assumptions underlying the assessments of others because they believe in the political or strategic objective.”

The abrupt change in in ONA’s assessments came after the Department of Foreign Affairs requested a new report from the agency in September of 2002. After September 2002, the positions of the ONA and the DIO began to diverge. From that point on, the ONA also seems to have been more willing to accept suspect intelligence, particularly that generated by their British and American counterparts.

“ONA was swamped by a 10-fold increase in intelligence material
after September, but only 22 per cent of the material was ‘tested’ or from
reliable sources….Until September 2002, both agencies said that Iraq’s WMD
capability was small and probably degraded. ONA, however, subsequently became
more willing to accept new and untested intelligence and to view ‘dual-use’
technologies as indicating that Iraq was concealing new production.”

Opposition politicians have seized on the report, attacking Howard for being evasive at best in presenting his case for war. Kevin Rudd, the Labor Party’s shadow
foreign secretary accused Howard of selective use of intelligence:

“This report is a catalogue of intelligence failure and it is a catalogue of a
Government cherry-picking the intelligence advice it received to suit its own
political objective.”

The leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Andrew Bartlett, was
even harsher in his criticisms, accusing the prime minister of nothing less than lying.

“If
you have evidence that clearly states there is significant doubt and you
deliberately don’t state that is the case, that you deliberately instead say
there is no doubt, then, yes, you are lying…”

Washington, London, Canberra. With the Australian inquiry to add to the ongoing investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, the “the coalition of the willing,” is increasingly becoming the “coalition of the investigated.”