Australia's spies knew the United States was lying about Iraq's WMD programme. So why didn't the Government choose to believe them?
By Andrew Wilkie (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 2003)
'Intelligence" was how the Americans described the material accumulating on Iraq from their super-sophisticated spy systems. But to analysts at the Office of National Assessments in Canberra, a decent chunk of the growing pile looked like rubbish. In their offices on the top floor of the drab ASIO building, ONA experts found much of the US material worthy only of the delete button or the classified waste chute to the truck-sized shredder in the basement.
Australian spooks aren't much like the spies in the James Bond movies. Not many drink vodka martinis. But most are smart - certainly smart enough to understand how US intelligence on Iraq was badly skewed by political pressure, worst-case analysis and a stream of garbage-grade intelligence concocted by Iraqis desperate for US intervention in Iraq.
It wasn't just the Australians who were mystified by the accumulating US trash. The French, Germans and Russians had long before refused to be persuaded by Washington's line. British intelligence agencies were still inclined to take a more conservative position. And the chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, even went so far as to say during a late April interview that "much of the intelligence on which the capitals built their case seemed to have been shaky".
So it was no surprise in some of the more mysterious corridors of Canberra last week when news broke about the CIA investigation into the US intelligence failure over Iraq. In fact, there was probably some relief, given the importance to Australian security of having the US intelligence system work properly.
After all, the Australia-US intelligence relationship is supposed to be one of the main reasons for the broader alliance between the two countries.
The CIA had clearly lost the plot if its October 2002 report on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program was anything to go by. Either that, or the agency was party to a disinformation campaign designed to encourage support for a war. How else to explain the excerpt quoted by the Prime Minister in early February: "All key aspects ... of Iraq's offensive biological weapons program are active and most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War."
The CIA's public acknowledgement of a review smells more like early positioning for its day of reckoning than a genuine interest in continuous improvement. The CIA can't afford another serious blunder so soon after its failure to pick up the September 11 attacks.
Condoleezza Rice was smart enough to attempt her U-turn weeks ago. According to the US National Security Adviser, WMD bombs, missiles and drones are out. Dual-use technology and just-in-time manufacturing are in. Find a pesticide factory, for instance, and you find a chemical warfare facility. And don't be concerned about looters. The more the place is trashed, the more difficult will be any dispute about the evidence. More recently, the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, has said publicly that Iraq may have destroyed its WMDs prior to the war.
The Howard Government will not be keen for an inquiry into Australian assessments on Iraq. Much better to let the whiff of US intelligence failure drift across the Pacific in the hope it implies that Australia was the victim of advice beyond its control. The last thing the Government wants is too much scrutiny of its claims about Iraq's WMDs and links to al-Qaeda, or the fact these claims were in the main contrary to advice from the Government's intelligence community.
Some in the Australian intelligence community had latched onto the dodgy American intelligence, resulting in partial contamination of assessments with an overestimation of Iraq's WMD capability. But Australian intelligence agencies made it clear to the Government all along that Iraq did not have a massive WMD program (that dubious honour remains restricted to at least China, France, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, Britain and the US). Nor was Saddam Hussein co-operating actively with al-Qaeda. And there was no indication Iraq was intending to pass WMDs to terrorists.
There could not have been any doubt whatsoever about all this in the mind of the Prime Minister or of any member of the national security committee of cabinet. Report after report from the bureaucracy made it abundantly clear that the US impatience to go for Iraq had very little to do with WMDs and an awful lot to do with US strategic and domestic interests. John Howard's suggestion yesterday that the Government strong line on WMDs matched intelligence advice is contrary to the more moderate line contained in ONA reporting.
Yet Australia was happy to go along with George Bush. Shame it put thousands of Australian troops at risk, cost nearly a billion dollars and has increased the terrorist threat to Australia.
Howard's February statement on Iraq was like something out of a time warp - one Gulf war and 12 years of international sanctions and UN weapons inspections out of date. "Iraq has form. Saddam Hussein has without provocation invaded Iran and Kuwait. He has fired missiles at Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain, and Qatar," he told Australians.
THE ONA was central in the lead-up to war. It understood months before it commenced that war was inevitable and Australia would be involved.
Despite Howard's protestations that no decision had yet been made, the ONA's people in Washington were frantically calling on their best contacts in the State Department and the CIA. Analysts in Canberra were preparing assessments almost daily; briefing teams were tramping back and forth to Parliament House constantly. Staff were gearing up to run a round-the-clock intelligence assessment function.
Now the WMD claims are unravelling. All that US intelligence garbage is on the nose. Coalition forces in Iraq have not found thousands of chemical artillery shells ready to be fired or ballistic missiles loaded with deadly bacteriological agents.
Moreover Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, has explained the WMD justification as a bureaucratic compromise, while a senior British spook has been reported as saying his country's public dossier on Iraq's WMD programme was manipulated by Downing Street to make a more compelling case for war
There is no big al-Qaeda apparatus - not even a box of plans for spiriting WMDs to terrorists. Only a broken country and a disgruntled people. Oh, and lots of oil.
That explains Howard's lurch towards his much-broader muddle of reasons for involvement in the war.
This is not to say that Iraq was of no concern or that some WMD-related materials will never be found in Iraq. Iraq had what's known in the business as a breakout WMD capability in its many dual-use facilities. The Fallujah III castor oil production plant near Baghdad, for example, was, like similar plants elsewhere in the world, suitable for conversion to a ricin toxin factory.
And Iraq, again like many countries including Australia, probably still has stockpiles of potential WMD ingredients - the chlorine needed for clean water, for example, can also be used to make deadly chemical agents.
Moreover, Iraq almost certainly had other WMD-related materials. US claims about mobile biological warfare facilities could yet prove true, though the implication that Iraq's biological weapons program relied on a handful of trailers tends to confirm the program was limited.
The trailers, and any other finds, will remain irrelevant until scrutinised by independent officials. The same goes for the interrogation reports of former Iraqi scientists, including those now detained in Morocco. With so much at stake, the possibility can't be ruled out that a zealous coalition official might attempt to tamper with the evidence.
Claims by Iraqis in custody that the WMD program was dismantled before the war could be true, especially if Saddam thought he could survive the war and achieve some sort of moral victory. But that would mean the program must have been much smaller than US assessments. Just as elusive is hard evidence of active co-operation with al-Qaeda. This was always an extraordinary proposition, not least because Saddam was a secular dictator intent on eradicating Islamic fundamentalism.
Another mystery is the Howard Government's enthusiasm for playing up the more general risk of WMD terrorism. It was well-advised, in briefing after briefing by ONA, that the risk of such an attack was - and still is - low, and that any such attack would almost certainly involve an unsophisticated device incapable of causing mass casualties. The chemical, biological or radiological device used was not likely to be a true WMD. The Government had also been advised of the many reasons countries do not pass WMDs to terrorists, not least the fear of massive US retaliation.
One of the major concerns about the war now is the way it will encourage the proliferation of WMDs. America's adversaries are being encouraged to acquire WMDs to deter US aggression. Mutually assured destruction kept the US and Soviet Union from each other's throats for decades. And, for now, Iran's and North Korea's arsenals seem to be influencing the US to back off.
Not that the US has any interest in multilateral arms control. The neo-cons in Washington think arms control doesn't work and is contrary to US interests.
Hence the US's lack of interest in the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban and Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaties. Washington's determination to develop new battlefield nuclear weapons is an especially alarming development.
"This is not going unnoticed and will come back to haunt us," says Richard Butler, the former head of the UN weapons inspection team in Iraq. "It's simply preposterous for the US to take the stand that it does on other people's WMD and ask the world to believe that its such weapons are of no such concern ..."
Another big concern is the dumbing-down and politicisation of Australia's intelligence. Most junior analysts try to offer frank and fearless advice. But the process is flawed. It involves so many layers of politically astute managers that the final result is often a report so bland as to be virtually worthless, or skewed ever so subtly towards the Government's preferred line. Better that, management would argue, than a brave report prepared in good faith that contradicts Government thinking or is likely to prove wrong over time.
Not that leaving the sharp edges on the intelligence reports would make much difference if a government chooses to believe only what it wants to believe and selects from the intelligence only what best suits its political purposes. The Federal Government pays much more attention to the mush of politicians' and advisers' views, public opinion and media commentary. And it applies a good dose of pro-US sycophancy. The result can be a fine compost indeed, as this whole Iraq business has proven.
Andrew Wilkie is a former analyst at the Office of National Assessments who resigned in protest at the Federal Government's actions over the Iraq war.
Copyright © 2003. The Sydney Morning Herald