The Big Lie
Andrew Wilkie's job was to find links between Iraq and terrorism. What he found was that the truth counted for little.
I can't recall precisely the origin of my decision to betray my Government. Probably it was during November and December 2002, when I prepared the detailed intelligence assessment for the Australian Government of the possible humanitarian consequences of the looming invasion of Iraq. It was a sobering experience, one that left me with a clear sense of how bad the fallout from the war could easily be.
The assessment of the British Government seemed particularly weak, not least because of the way in which serious gaps had been backfilled with reams of allegations that I knew couldn't possibly be supported by hard intelligence.
By early 2003, as part of my work at the Office of National Assessments (ONA), I was spending considerable time trawling through the vast intelligence database on Iraq so as to be ready to help cover the war once it started.
What jumped out at me was that the war had little to do with weapons of mass destruction and almost nothing to do with al-Qaeda. We were on the cusp of waging an unjustified war on the basis of a preposterous lie. Importantly, my work with ONA on transnational issues, such as people smuggling, had exposed me to some raw intelligence of very poor quality, which gave me a more critical eye in general when it came to analysing intelligence information. By late2002 nothing could stop the countdown to war.
Tony Blair and John Howard understood this clearly because their intelligence agencies were telling them so - I know this was the case in Australia and I'm certain the situation was identical in the UK. ONA knew Australia would participate in a war by late 2002; the Australian Defence Force had begun to prepare even earlier. As far back as mid-2002, for example, the Special Air Service Regiment in Perth was focused on the need to be ready for the formal order to deploy troops to Iraq.
Blair and Howard knowingly recycled the US's case for invading Iraq so as to stay in step with Bush. They understood the broader US agenda and were sympathetic to much of it.
Although Howard had clearly decided by late 2002 to support Bush's war, this decision was not a formal decision of Government. Rather it was an understanding of the US's intentions and a determination to support them, at any cost. In this sense, Howard is correct in saying, as he has repeatedly, that no decision was made by the Government to support the war until just before the invasion began.
Nevertheless, Howard knew what was brewing long before the National Security Committee of Cabinet formally deliberated on the decision to commit Australian troops. ONA's reporting on the US - in accordance with the Government's direction - was prolific during the lead-up to hostilities. Moreover, the occasional telephone conversations with George Bush, about which Howard boasted publicly, also ensured that the Australian Government was well informed enough to be able to read the situation in Washington.
Washington was not always frank with its allies during the build-up to the war, so little so that UK and Australian intelligence agencies sometimes needed to treat the US more as a focus of intelligence interest than as a close ally. A reluctance to share information with allies is fine some of the time. US and UK officials presumably aren't fussed about not receiving the Australian intelligence assessments on issues such as border security that shed light on the effectiveness or otherwise of specific Australian government policies. But it is a different matter when vitally important information, such as the latest thinking in the White House, isn't shared about an issue as grave and all-encompassing as the impending invasion of Iraq.
To overcome problems of this kind, the agreement between the US, UK and Australia (as well as Canada) not to spy on each other is interpreted somewhat loosely. Although Australia is not inclined to spy on the US, it has always been my assumption, one shared by at least some of my former colleagues, that the US spies on Australia.
Australia's corresponding capacity to collect information concerning the US and the UK is far more limited; we must rely instead on the work of diplomats, military staff and intelligence liaison officers who prowl like bottom-feeders for scraps and titbits in the corridors of power in Washington and London.
Thanks to such efforts, Howard (and by his own means, Blair) knew before the war began that the US was intent on invading Iraq for many reasons, not only those involving WMD and terrorism. I recall numerous ONA assessments that explored the machinations in Washington and the thinking of George Bush and his circle.
If this knowledge is juxtaposed with the public case for war that was made in London and Canberra, something very interesting is revealed: Blair and Howard's oft-repeated justifications for going to war were quite hollow. Their statements about WMD and terrorism were made in the full knowledge that such justifications were not the central reasons for the US's actions.
The invasion of Iraq was sold on the basis of that country possessing a massive arsenal of WMD and co-operating actively with terrorists. These claims were made in many different ways and have since been radically re-engineered, but the heart of the official case against Iraq made in Washington, London and Canberra was always as follows: Iraq possessed significant quantities of chemical and biological weapons, it was determined to acquire nuclear weapons, and it was consorting with al-Qaeda.
For his part, John Howard made it quite clear in his February 4, 2003, address to the Australian Parliament that his Government endorsed the views being expressed in Washington and London, including those contained in the American and British reports released on Iraq. He also sought to make clear Iraq's association with the war on terror: "The Australian Government knows that Iraq still has chemical and biological weapons and that Iraq wants to develop nuclear weapons." THERE is no single issue, or shocking secret report, or classified intelligence assessment that I can refer to in order to explain how the Iraq threat was blatantly exaggerated for political purposes. The process was not that dramatic. Most often the deceit lay in the way Washington, London and Canberra deliberately skewed the truth by taking the ambiguity out of the issue. Key intelligence assessment qualifications were frequently dropped and much more definite words put in their place, even though such embellishments had not been offered to the governments by their intelligence agencies. Before we knew it, our political leaders had created a mythical Iraq, one where every factory was up to no good.
Crucially, there were significant intelligence gaps on Iraq.
These were consistently filled with sequences of doubtful information based on worst-case assumptions, all of this finely tuned to reinforce the need to invade.
Two of these gaps are especially important: the unaccounted-for pre-1991 Gulf War WMD, and the uncertainty surrounding Iraq's actions between the withdrawal of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) in 1998 and the arrival of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) in late 2002.
The US, the UK and Australia all went to a great deal of trouble to highlight that, based on UN assessments, unaccounted for WMD material included up to 360 tonnes of bulk chemical agent, up to 3000 tonnes of precursor chemicals, enough growth media to produce tens of thousands of litres of biological agent, and over 30,000 special munitions suitable for delivery of chemical and biological agents.
However, the continued reference to these figures in the case for war appeared to me to be simply ridiculous, not least because no one, not even the Iraqis themselves, knew exactly how much chemical and biological agent they'd produced, exactly how much was used during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war or exactly how much was destroyed later outside of UNSCOM control.
On balance the strong, unambiguous language contained in the case for war seemed more the work of salespeople than professional intelligence officers. The claims that the repeated assertions reflected accurately the views of national intelligence agencies are plainly wrong. They were simply too much at odds with the piles of intelligence material I was privy to. In all the material I saw on Iraq, never did I see such a string of unqualified and strong judgements as was contained in the official case for war presented by Bush, Blair and Howard.
By late 2003, however, there was no possibility that Bush, Blair and Howard were unaware of the true situation in Iraq or that they were in some form of understandable denial. No, they were well aware of the fix they were in, but decided to deal with it with more prevarications, fabrications, distortions and exaggerations. Lies beget lies, as they say.
IN Australia, the intelligence chain, from the Iraq WMD analyst through to the director-general, was a ludicrously short one: only a single full-time strategic analyst on Iraq, one middle manager and the director-general, Kim Jones. All three are decent people - two remain friendly to me - who most of the time adopted a commendably measured view on Iraq.
Except in one case: the marked shift made clear in the unexpectedly hardline ONA assessment produced in mid-September 2002. This was an unclassified report put together at the request of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Specifically, the September 13 ONA assessment on Iraq stated that a range of intelligence and public information suggests that "Iraq is highly likely to have chemical and biological weapons". It also commented that, "there is no reason to believe that Saddam Hussein has abandoned his ambition to acquire nuclear weapons". Yet only the previous day, the 2004 inquiry revealed, ONA had reported that there was no firm evidence of new chemical and biological weapon production.
ONA's sudden shift to a more gung-ho position on Iraq is striking. For years it had treated the CIA's claims about Iraq with great caution and, along with Australia's military intelligence agency, the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO), it had continued to take a much more measured view than the US and the UK. What happened to change this stance? I believe the explanation is at its core rather simple. The Australian Government's extraordinary request in mid-September for an unclassified report for use in the preparation of the Prime Minister's and Foreign Minister's speeches sent a clear signal to ONA to deliver something much stronger. Crucially, ONA is not a policy organisation and does not normally prepare unclassified notes for anyone's public speeches.
All [ONA reports to the Government] are rigidly capped in length and written in simple terms for the benefit of the non-experts who will read them; often only the most basic explanation of the issue at hand is provided. Adding to the pressure to condense was Howard's personal direction that ONA's reports be produced in a larger 13-point script so that they would be easier for him to read.
This is an edited extract from Axis of Deceit by Andrew Wilkie, published by Black Inc. Agenda, $29.95, available from Tuesday.