It Matters!

By Carmen Lawrence (July 22 2003)


The failure to discover the so-called weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - and widespread reports that intelligence was subject to political pressure and interference - has so far drawn a relatively mild public response in Australia and, for that matter, in the United States. Tony Blair, however, has been under the hammer, and pressure is mounting after the death of Dr David Kelly.

The Prime Minister here has absolved himself again of any responsibility for what has to be the greatest con trick ever perpetrated on the Australian people, one with deadly consequences for the people of Iraq, who are still dying and suffering every day as a result of the violent invasion and subsequent occupation of their country.

We are supposed not to care about this - we've "moved on", Howard claims, using Bush's line, as he has done so often. We're told it doesn't really matter now.

It doesn't matter, apparently, that we were told that the coalition of the willing invaded Iraq to destroy nuclear, biological and chemical weapons to prevent them being used against other states or passed on to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. The motion which the Howard Government put before the House of Representatives stated unequivocally that:

"Iraq's continued possession and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, in defiance of its mandatory obligations under numerous resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, represents a real and unacceptable threat to international peace and security."

And he said in his Address to the Nation on March 20, 2003:

"Therefore the possession of chemical, biological, or even worse still, nuclear weapons by a terrorist network would be a direct undeniable and lethal threat to Australia and its people. That is the reason above all others why I passionately believe that action must be taken to disarm Iraq."

The Prime Minister went on and on about the imminent threat from such weapons this and many other speeches. They were the reason, the 'principal' reason, the principal objective of the allies' military actions.

'Truly,' we were assured, 'we are at grave risk; the great superpower itself, the United States, is threatened; peace-loving people and democracies are in jeopardy unless we discover and root out these weapons.'

If the United Nations won't act, we were told, we will. Oh, and by the way, despite a mountain of international legal opinion to the contrary, our decision to be part of an invading force is justified by previous UN resolutions - don't worry about that. And to show that it really is about the weapons, if Saddam Hussein would give them up, we will not pursue him. The weapons are the thing, we were told-both by our Prime Minister and other leaders.

It's fair to say the only fig leaf our government had in prosecuting this case within international law was the weapons argument. Invasion of another state for regime change, the justification embraced by the Howard government since weapons have not turned up, is in flagrant breach of international law. Everyone agrees about that.

In the United States a gullible people fed garbage by Fox and the largely compliant print media have decided that it does not matter much that they were lied to and manipulated; the attack did get rid of a really nasty dictator who most of them still believe was somehow responsible for the September 11 attack. In their minds that apparently justifies their government treating them with complete disdain. Australians, by and large, appear to have reached the same conclusion; it does not matter how we got there, the bad guy has gone - although we do not actually know where he is - and none of our defence personnel got killed.

It does not matter, apparently, if the Prime Minister has shown the Australian people again that he thinks that they are a bunch of gullible fools who will swallow any old load of garbage without demur. I guess he might be entitled to think that after the largely apathetic reactions to the revelations that the government systematically misled us in the children overboard and Tampa incidents. Having fooled us he now takes us for fools.

I think it does matter and I think it matters a lot. It matters that thousands of Iraqi people were killed and injured and that their lives have been turned upside down. Electricity supplies are still unreliable; water and sewage treatment cannot be guaranteed; security is a nightmare. It matters. It matters that our own government feels it owes us no explanation for the questionable intelligence it used to justify the most extreme of actions - waging war - without parliamentary approval, putting our people's lives and future security at risk. It matters.

Years of inspections, hours of debating in the United Nations and in parliaments around the world, acres of newsprint and endless spin from government officials and leaders were all devoted to convincing an initially sceptical public that there were biological and chemical weapons which could be launched within 45 minutes; that Iraq had wilfully resisted proper inspection and disclosure of massive secret stockpiles of weapons.

How did we know this? Despite UN weapons inspectors and other reliable sources within Iraq concluding that it was most likely that these weapons capabilities had been effectively destroyed by years of sanctions and pressure from the UN itself, how did we know this? Because our intelligence sources told us so.

The big question is: did they really? Or was there a massive disinformation campaign to create a justification for war from partial, contentious and often unreliable sources, which the intelligence agencies themselves urged should be treated with caution?

We were forced to participate in a charade of raking over past United Nations resolutions for pretexts for war, of alliances and of new resolutions - the last one dumped when it became clear that the Security Council was not going to roll over under US pressure.

We were invited to look away while bribes were offered to desperately poor nations to buy their votes and we were invited to ignore well-sourced reports of the electronic surveillance of member states to allow the United States and the United Kingdom to anticipate and prepare rebuttals to the arguments of those nations who dared oppose them - all of this conducted in an atmosphere of confected crisis and imminent threat.

We all watched with increasing alarm the big speeches by Bush and Blair and Howard, by Colin Powell and Jack Straw, replete with maps and dossiers, making concrete those fears, showing us diagrams of laboratories, specifying the quantities of weapons trained on the world, showing us all of these things and engaging in lurid speculation about the many and varied ways in which we were at risk from these "weapons of mass destruction" - the phrase repeated over and over again.

How did we know all this? Because the reach of the United States intelligence apparatus is enormous; because its ally the United Kingdom knows the region intimately as its former imperial overlord. Australia, tagging along behind, used our own intelligence agencies to try and assess the veracity of the material shared with us by our allies. We were told over and over again that there was no doubt that Iraq did possess large quantities of weapons of mass destruction which they could use at any time or hand over to the terrorists, who would have no compunction about using them on us, the hated westerners.

Besides, as one of the grim jokes circulating about the missing weapons has it: 'How did we know that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? Because we still have the receipts.' It was, after all, the United States and some European nations who supplied most of the material and the technology and turned a blind eye while chemical weapons were used in the Iran-Iraq war and then against the Kurdish people. The flow of money, material and technology did not stop until Iraq invaded Kuwait.

It is not as though there were not plenty of dissenters within the intelligence community, even before the attacks; people who were prepared to put their own jobs and reputations on the line so that the truth could be known before such an important decision was made.

Hans Blix himself issued diplomatically circumspect and repeated cautions about some of the more extravagant claims being made about the weapons Iraq was said to possess and objected vehemently when his own report to the UN was misused by the US administration in particular and also by the Australian government. Dr ElBaradei confirmed that there was no nuclear capacity at all. And we know that the Niger uranium connection was a forgery - although John Howard continues to deny it. Indeed it was widely known well before the now notorious speeches by all three leaders which included the false claims.

Blix has since pronounced himself disappointed with the quality of US and British intelligence and has said that their governments had not been justified in their conclusions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This man knows more about it than anyone else on this planet. Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter too made it clear from the outset of the US push to a pre-emptive strike that the inspections and the sanctions regime had effectively dismantled the greater part of the Iraqi arsenal and their capacity to develop new weapons. He argued that the claims being made by the so-called allies were exaggerated and unduly alarmist-this all before the attack.

Even more compelling was the evidence of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, who defected to the United States in 1995. CIA and British intelligence officials who debriefed Hussein Kamal after his defection and reviewed the complete transcript of UNSCOM, who also interviewed him, reported that he insisted that nothing was left. He is alleged to have said that all chemical weapons were destroyed, that he personally had ordered their destruction. Weight I think has to be given to his evidence since Saddam Hussein had him executed after he returned to Iraq.

Blair's dossier was exposed before the war as decidedly dodgy. Downing Street was finally forced to admit that much of the dossier came from dated academic sources and one portion at least was plagiarised directly from a PhD student's thesis. And Robin Cook's resignation could have left no doubt about his uncertainty about the evidence. One of the most intelligent and best informed of Blair's cabinet, he was privy to regular security briefings and was not convinced of the claims that Iraq had a massive stockpile of weapons and posed a serious threat. He recently urged the British government not to be suckered again, as he put it, by the US hawks into similar action in Iran or, we might add, North Korea.

Before the attack on Iraq, former CIA and other intelligence operatives actually wrote to George Bush expressing their alarm at what appeared to be political interference in the intelligence community. Their worst fears of course have since been confirmed.

Just in case the Howard government thinks it can pass the buck for intelligence failures to the big guys, Andrew Wilkie's courageous resignation from the Office of National Assessment - because he believed that Australia's decision to join in the attack on Iraq was simply wrong and was based on incomplete information - prevents them from doing so. Wilkie made it clear in a recent article that ONA officials and others were well aware of the deficiencies in US intelligence and warned the government repeatedly that Iraq did not have a substantial WMD program and that the US reasons for engagement were not really about the destruction of such weapons. He correctly anticipated that the Howard government would not be keen for an inquiry into Australian intelligence assessments on Iraq; much better, as Wilkie put it 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".

Wilkie emphasises that there could not have been any doubt whatsoever about all this in the mind of Prime Minister or any other member of the National Security Committee of Cabinet. Report after report from the bureaucracy made it abundantly clear that 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. They cannot now credibly claim ignorance. It's a measure of the contempt in which they hold for the Australian people that they are trying to so.

Now that it has been officially declared that the war is over and its objectives achieved, a steady stream of information from security sources in both the US and the UK confirms what these analysts said before the attack and what many of us who were opposed to the war suspected. There is increasing evidence of manipulation of intelligence and political pressure skewing British and US intelligence on Iraq and the use of it here in Australia. This has clearly led to the Australian government itself ignoring the warnings of its own intelligence advisers - intelligence about the supposed weapons threat was manipulated, exaggerated and spun to suit the political objectives of the coalition of the willing.

The intelligence agencies, at least in the U.K., are apparently not prepared to take the rap for the conspicuous failure to turn up any weapons. That is why they have been leaking so comprehensively. It transpires that they warned their political masters that they had no direct evidence of such weapons. The Australian agencies have been so politicised that they are throwing themselves in front of the PM and his ministers to absorb any flack. As they now do so often and with such alacrity.

In the United States while George Bush was telling the world, and being echoed slavishly by our own Prime Minister, and I quote: "... the Iraqi regime possesses chemical and biological weapons ...", a widely circulated defence intelligence agency report at the time concluded that "there was no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing or stockpiling chemical weapons". As Jason Vest put it in a recent article in Nation:

"Anyone familiar with the intelligence game knows how susceptible any intelligence - raw reports and intercepts, finished analyses, white papers, national intelligence estimates - is to potential manipulation or subversion."

"It was clear that the Rumsfeld-Chaney axis was having its way with the CIA," he wrote, and this should not have come as a surprise because "the neoconservative clique the Defence Secretary and Vice President hail from has a long history of using form and subterfuge to make intelligence say - implicitly or explicitly - what is ideologically desired."

Academic John Prados, who sifted through all the unclassified CIA reports on Iraq's nuclear, chemical, biological and missile capabilities, reported in the May-June Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

"It is fair to suspect that CIA analysts did not approve of the cast being given to their reporting. Conversely, Defence Secretary Rumsfeld had little real need to create his own in-house intelligence staff to furnish threat information on Iraq because George Tenet's CIA had already been hounded into doing just that."

One official from the Defence Intelligence Agency in the US told the New York Times:

"As an employee of the DIA, I know this administration has lied to the public to get support for its attack on Iraq."

Another claimed the Bush administration "grossly manipulated intelligence" about WMDs. And the Australian government was being warned precisely that that is what they were doing and that much of the "intelligence" being transmitted to us from the U.S. was "garbage". There was no intelligence failure; they wanted a war so they insisted on reports to support their case while ignoring contrary evidence.

US intelligence officials have kept up a steady stream of complaint about the pressure exerted on them. Cheney and senior aides apparently made numerous trips to the CIA, and operatives reported that they felt they were being pressured to make their assessments fit the administration's objectives.

What of the evidence now that the search has been going on the ground for almost four months, and Australia sent a team to join the US rather than involving the experienced UN team again? What have they found? Exactly nothing. A couple of mobile labs were held to be the clinching evidence - the Prime Minister even added an extra one. But an official British investigation has already found that they were to manufacture hydrogen for weather balloons as claimed, and that the mobile trailers were actually manufactured in the United Kingdom. Yet our own Prime Minister continues to insist that this is the decisive evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

Like Rumsfeld, our Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs continue to insist against all logic that Iraq may have destroyed all the WMDs before the war started. That would be very odd behaviour if it were true. If you were going to be attacked, if war was imminent and you had one last means of defence, why would you destroy it? And there is no evidence of this having happened. So we're now asked to grasp the straw that they had "weapons' capabilities".

Similar pressure was apparently placed on British officials. Reports in the UK media over the last few weeks attest to a continuing battle of propaganda on both sides of the Atlantic. British intelligence sources - one of whom is now known to be Dr David Kelly - made claims that intelligence on Iraq had been 'sexed up' for publication by Downing Street. On top of this, the BBC was also informed that a major claim in Blair's now infamous dossier - that Iraq could unleash chemical or biological attack within 45 minutes of the order-was actually inserted at the insistence of Downing Street. Even The Times, which adopted a pro-war stance at the time, recently ran an analysis which concluded:

"The government is seen as having spun the threat from Saddam's weapons, just as it spins everything else."

Despite the apparent exoneration of the Blair government by a Parliamentary Committee on which the government has the numbers, the BBC refused to withdraw these claims and Blair is no longer trusted by a majority of the British people. Even Bush's popularity and support for the attack on Iraq have declined. Doubt is corroding the triumphalism of the coalition of the willing.

It matters and Australians should take notice.

We should listen to Andrew Wilkie when he says so emphatically that Australians have been gulled by this government. The attack on Iraq rests on a lie-the 'greatest foreign policy scandal' since World War 11, as Robert Manne puts it.

Those who care about democracy, regardless of their views on this war, must demand explanations from this government. In the United Kingdom and the United States the media and some MPs are insisting on proper accounting, with severe embarrassment to Blair if not to Bush. Australians deserve no less - and the Joint Parliamentary Committee inquiring into the matter will provide us with the opportunity to expose this government's mendacity.

So far the weapons have not turned up. There is every chance that they will not. But we already know, whether we find some or none, that intelligence has been misused and the Australian government has been prepared to ignore its own advice - to use the 'stacks of garbage' as a justification for such extreme action: going to war, killing other people, and putting Australians' lives at risk. We already know that our government has been prepared to traduce the truth and to cynically manipulate the Australian people - again.

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