Aug 22nd, 2003, 01:06 PM
COALITION OF THE WILLING TO LIE
Inquiry Told Australia Govt Lied About Iraq Threat
By Michelle Nichols
CANBERRA (Reuters) - The Australian government lied about the threat of Iraq (news - web sites)'s weapons of mass destruction to justify its involvement in the U.S.-led war, an official inquiry into intelligence on Iraq was told on Friday.
A former senior intelligence analyst, Andrew Wilkie, who resigned in March in protest over Australia's case for war, said Prime Minister John Howard, a close U.S. ally, created a mythical Iraq by dropping ambiguous references in intelligence reports.
"The government lied every time it skewed, misrepresented, used selectively and fabricated the Iraq story...The exaggeration was so great it was pure dishonesty," Wilkie, formerly of the Office of National Assessment (ONA), told the inquiry.
The ONA is equivalent to the U.S. National Security Agency.
"Key intelligence assessment qualifications like 'probably', 'could' and 'uncorroborated evidence suggests' were frequently dropped. Much more useful words like massive and mammoth were included," he added.
Controversy has been raging in the United States, Britain and Australia over accusations those governments manipulated intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to justify the war with no evidence yet found of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.
Wilkie's comments to the inquiry are some his strongest yet against Howard's administration. Since his resignation, Wilkie has made numerous attacks on Howard, embarrassing the Australian leader.
"I don't know on what he bases those claims. If he has got evidence of that let him produce it, otherwise stop slandering decent people," Howard told reporters in Adelaide.
"I deny his allegations...ONA has indicated that he had virtually no access to the relevant intelligence."
PARALLEL TO BRITISH INQUIRY
The Australian parliamentary hearing parallels an inquiry into the information the British government used to make its case for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein (news - web sites).
Prime Minister Tony Blair (news - web sites) and Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon are due to give evidence next week at the inquiry into the suicide of weapons expert David Kelly, who was caught up in a row over the prime minister's case for war with Iraq.
Howard has said he made the right decision to send a 2,000-strong force to the Gulf despite initial public qualms, but said that intelligence could not have provided absolute proof of the Iraqi threat.
Wilkie said he believes Iraq had a disjointed weapons of mass destruction program, but said the United Nations (news - web sites) should have been given more time to search Iraq.
He said the Australian intelligence community had done an acceptable job in judging the threat posed by Iraq, but was sometimes biased by U.S. intelligence, government pressure and politically correct intelligence officers.
"The government was prepared to deliberately exaggerate the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and terrorism threat so as to stay in step with the United States. The Australian government misled the Australian public over Iraq," Wilkie said.
Former U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler told the inquiry on Friday that 85-90 percent of specific, hard intelligence he received on Iraq from countries including the United States and Britain was accurate, but also very rare.
Butler, who led the U.N. weapons inspection team in Iraq between 1997 and 1999, said the more voluminous, speculative intelligence, such as intercepted messages and pictures taken by spy planes, tended to be less than 50 percent accurate.
"I'm sure once (Iraq) is finally swept then there will be some weapons of mass destruction found. I don't think they would have destroyed all of them or could have. Let no-one doubt they had a weapons of mass destruction progamme," Butler said.
The Australian inquiry, some of which will be held in secret because of the confidential nature of some intelligence, is due to report back to the conservative government in December.