Essay

A colonial state of mind

THE PUSH FOR war in Iraq went in to overdrive in September 2002, six months before the first American troops landed in ancient Mesopotamia. It began with a Bush Administration decision to release intelligence material to one of The New York Times's star reporters, Judith Miller. The story appeared on the front page of the Sunday September 8 edition and it told how the United States had intercepted Iraqi attempts to import aluminium tubes and that inspections had revealed their only use could be in centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Miller's story – syndicated around the world, including to the Fairfax press in Australia – was backed up with confirmation from unnamed "Iraqi defectors". The Sydney Morning Herald, for instance, ran it in world news under the headline "Saddam on global quest for atomic bomb: US". It dramatically upped the ante on the search for evidence of Saddam's holdings of weapons of mass destruction and his plans to produce and use them. And it did so in the middle of mass media coverage of the first anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Miller's story or, more accurately, the reliability of her sources, has since been exposed by Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books (February 26, 2004) and by the ombudsman of the NYT itself (May 26, 2004). And, of course, its truth was exposed six months after Miller's article (and still prewar) by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed El Baradei, reporting to the United Nations Security Council on March 7, 2003:

There is no indication that Iraq has attempted to import aluminium tubes for use in centrifuge enrichment ... After months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons program in Iraq.

Miller's story marks the beginning of a co-ordinated onslaught to sell the war to the various publics around the world – and to bring a sceptical world press onside. The prestigious New York Times, and all its syndicated outlets, was a very good "get". In the days that followed, the US and British governments went on the front foot. Bush spoke to the UN on September 12 and gave the tubes a big mention. Blair produced his now-famous dossier on September 24 and, in a foreword, took the claims even further:

Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, he continues in his efforts to produce nuclear weapons and ... his military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.

Squeezed in between the two big and powerful friends came Alexander Downer, Australian Foreign Minister, who played Little Sir Echo. On September 17, 2002, he too told the Australian Parliament:

Australian intelligence agencies believe there is evidence of a pattern of acquisition of equipment that could be used in a uranium-enrichment program ... Iraq's attempted acquisition of very specific types of aluminium tubes may be ... part of that pattern.

Interestingly, the later Parliamentary Joint Committee examining the adequacy of intelligence to the Howard Government found Downer quoted "Australian intelligence" to Parliament when in fact the intelligence he relied on for these claims "came from the United States and United Kingdom agencies at the time".

We now know that at exactly this time and in all three nations, all part of the lonesome "coalition of the willing" anxious to invade Iraq, there was serious division inside their intelligence communities. The more outlandish and aggressive the institutional advice to their respective governments, the more many case-hardened, sceptical, professional spooks dragged their heels. The case of the aluminium tubes was only one part of the divisions, though an important component pointing as it did to the nuclear part of the WMD trinity. In the US, the CIA was in fact split on the tubes question – a state of disagreement it acknowledged publicly a month later in its National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. Many other senior analysts, former inspectors and nuclear weapons experts in the US also found the Bush line on the tubes incorrect. In Britain, the Hutton inquiry (January 2004) has since exposed that not only the late Dr David Kelly was concerned with the "sexing up" the Blair dossier represented. The Prime Minister's press secretary's visit to the British Joint Intelligence Committee to strengthen its dossier draft involved 16 "suggestions", some of which were accepted and changed the meanings materially. One concerned the scientists from Joint Intelligence Office (JIO) using the word "may" in relation to the 45-minute claim. It was removed. On September 19, quite apart from Kelly, a group of British Defence intelligence staff who had worked on the dossier put their objections in writing and sent them off to JIO. Their objections to the "sexing up" were overruled.

And in Australia, we also now know that a strange split opened up in mid-September 2002 between the two principal intelligence advisers to the Howard Government on Iraq: the Office of National Assessments (ONA) and the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO). The Parliamentary Joint Committee (PJC) report,Intelligence on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (December 2003) makes much of ONA's sudden aggressive surge forward in September 2002 and its maintenance of that stand, wrongly, through the Prime Minister's speeches and to the start of the war itself. Again, it is a matter of words and cautious treatment of the truth. Says the committee:

From this date the language of the ONA assessments tends to be much more definitive ... The "patchy and inconclusive" evidence on nuclear weapons became "there is no reason to believe that Saddam Hussein has abandoned his ambition to acquire nuclear weapons". (ONA assessment 13.9.02)
The aluminium tubes mentioned in the assessment of July 19 become, without the caveat of the US dispute, a more accepted part of the evidence on Iraq's nuclear programs. (PJC, p. 32)
The committee gives no explanation of the major split in emphases between the two Australian agencies but does make the point that in September the amount of intelligence coming into Australia about Iraq's WMD "increased exponentially" and that:
Australia relied on its partner agencies for approximately 97 per cent of the intelligence on Iraq; only about 3 per cent of this intelligence originated in Australia. (PJC, p.46)

Australia's intelligence, like the political rhetoric it provoked, was a mirror image of US and British practice, even to the point of the crucial differences emerging within and between agencies.

 

SO, IN SEPTEMBER 2002, six months before the war, much was happening both publicly and behind the scenes. New alleged evidence was appearing of Iraq's nuclear capacities and intentions and there were major disagreements in the intelligence communities of all three members of the "coalition of the willing". Where was the media? How much of this leaked out? As we approached a war that would kill 10,000 and more, how many journalists told of the doubts and the differences that became crucial fodder for the policy makers and thus the public?

The answer is simple on the aluminium tubes. In the US, as Massing has shown, Miller kicked off the issue inThe New York Times and it took almost a month before another news team, from the Knight Ridder Washington bureau, started to report the intelligence community's split on the Miller/Bush line. From there, other US papers picked up the doubts but submerged them inside their news pages. In Britain, The Guardianand The Independent reported the doubts. But it wasn't really until well after the war, in May 2003, that the major revelations occurred in the form of Andrew Gilligan's famous live BBC broadcast accusing the Prime Minister of knowing that some of the dossier claims were false. While Gilligan was later found by Hutton to have insufficient evidence for his claim about Blair, Gilligan provided clear evidence of the scientific experts' widespread' concern at Downing Street's "sexing up" of their intelligence on Iraq. So the BBC's Gilligan correctly outed the "sexing up" but it was two months too late to contribute to the war debate.

And in Australia? I looked at six months of reports before and after the war from one newspaper from each of our three largest cities – Melbourne (The Age), Sydney (The Sydney Morning Herald) and Brisbane (The Courier-Mail) – and added in the national daily, The Australian. Two Fairfax, two Murdoch. I was looking for the sceptical journos resisting the howling dogs of war or, at least, asking questions.

Unlike at the NYT and The Washington Post, you don't find in Australia reporters like Miller whose expertise and fame is built on specialisation in a round (in her case, WMDs, reported both in her paper and in two books). The nearest equivalent in Australian newspapers might be Paul McGeough, former editor of the SMHand now its roving correspondent (and author of two books on the Middle East). McGeough, throughout much of this period, was reporting from Baghdad and stayed in place as the war blitz raged around him. News Limited's European correspondent Peter Wilson was also in Baghdad for the month of the war, along with Ian McPhedran. Marian Wilkinson, The Age and SMH Washington correspondent, was the only other reporter consistently reporting the war from abroad for either proprietor, and her work reflected the nuances of the public debate prior to the invasion. But she couldn't be expected to report on Australia's intelligence agencies' performance.

The result is that Australians were reliant on journalists back home – just as British and American readers were – for the analysis of the massaging coming from their governments about the coming war in Iraq. So where were they? Where were the defence correspondents breaking news of the dodginess of so much intelligence material? Where were the stories, now revealed, about the differences within the Australian intelligence community about Howard's war? Where were the forensic analyses of Howard's and Downer's public certainties about the "grave and immediate" (Downer, September 9, 2002) and "real and unacceptable" (Howard, February 4, 2003) dangers of Saddam's WMD possession and intended usage?

 

HERE'S WHAT I found: next to nil. Just as the "children overboard" lie emanating from the Defence Department just prior to the 2001 election took journalists months to unpick, so the nonsense of Saddam's ready arsenal of WMDs similarly waited until after the war. Only when Andrew Wilkie, the middle-ranking ONA analyst, resigns on March 12 in a splash in The Bulletin do we get two articles – one from Age defence correspondent Mark Forbes (March 13) and one from Deborah Snow in the SMH (March 15) – suggesting there are others inside the spook's club who might feel the same way. It's better than nothing – and it's prewar (by a matter of days) – but there was so much more in Canberra to get.

And, to boot, there was more to report just comparing the final claims of Howard and Downer with documents off the net. It had become a kind of second-hand hand-me-down "cool" to downplay the inspectors' reports of Hans Blix (UNMOVIC) and El Baradei (IAEA), but why? They were the UN's men on the ground, combing over Iraq with hundreds of scientists and experts. So if the significant differences between our own DIO and ONA were not picked up, neither were the reports of the IAEA. When El Baradei presented his major report on January 8, 2003, a summary of two months of inspections of Iraq's nuclear capability (answer: nil), it was reported in a few paragraphs in two Australian newspapers – one, at the bottom of a foreign report on page 8 in The Australian, the other on page 59 in international news in Sydney's The Sun-Herald.

One argument might be that if Australia's intelligence, and therefore its agencies, are so heavily dependent on US and UK sources (97 per cent), there is very little room to move for Australian journalists when the action is elsewhere. But this is to accept our colonial status well and truly and, in any case, there were splits in spooks in Canberra and international documents aplenty contradicting Australian public statements.

It is also to ignore another crucial level of expertise in our media: the commentator. It has become the role of the commentators to dissect the public justifications coming out of all the major policy departments and offices in Canberra. It is often they who are called in for briefings, attend or run think tanks, get exclusive interviews and fly off to foreign parts for meetings with world leaders. A look at the six-months-before/six-months-after data shows most of the opinion writing on Iraq in the four newspapers chosen was by five senior commentators: Hugh White and Gerard Henderson (SMH-Age), David Costello (The Courier-Mail) and Paul Kelly and Greg Sheridan (The Australian). Others, like Robert Manne and Paul Sheehan, certainly discussed the war (both opposed it) but their columns were occasional on Iraq compared to the others.

Much of the commentary since the war has been in growing shock at how wrong were the predictions prior to start of hostilities in mid-March, 2003, and how seriously the neo-conservative dream has gone awry. Post-facto wisdom has abounded. "No place for ideological extremes," Kelly wrote on May 26, 2004, but, after 500,000 Australians marched on the streets against the war, Kelly's column trumpeted on February 19, 2003, "Craven trudge to a moral morass".

So where were the dominant foreign affairs commentators then, when the need for analytic calm in a storm of emotion (right and left) was most needed?

Well, the answer is: on board the troopship, ready for war. Except for one: David Costello, foreign affairs commentator for Murdoch's Brisbane Courier-Mail. Alone among these five, he called it a coming disaster and stuck to his beliefs. And, in the meantime, disagreed with his rather powerful proprietor.

Costello wrote in December, 2002:

The very personal hatred felt by President George W. Bush and his team towards Saddam is understandable the man is undeniably a monster. But this depth of loathing obscures US consideration of the main alternative to war, namely the continued containment and emasculation of Saddam.

The same line – essentially, the Clinton/Powell policy – continued in his columns right up to invasion day. Postwar, Costello had less to squirm about.

In a peculiar way, so did Henderson and Sheridan. A reading of Henderson is less an exercise in argued policy or close analysis than a rundown of who is sticking to the allegedly correct positions of left or right he has assigned them. Apart from his obsession about deviant ABC types, he spends much of his column space tracking down quotes about who said what when. The search engines at the Sydney Institute must have been running overtime. Hugh White, his fellow commentator at the SMH, is lambasted in December 2002 for running a strategic policy institute funded by the Howard Government but having the temerity to criticise government policy in the SMH. Since Henderson's contribution is largely about giving the Government advice, his views before and after the war are reasonably consistent. Sheridan, on the other hand, is so planetary in his explicit adherence to the Washington neoconservatives that he cannot see any reason to apologise postwar for anything he said in support of the invasion prewar. Hasn't it all gone fine and dandy? he asks. WMDs? Sure, they'll turn up soon, he hopes through most of 2003 and into 2004. Like Howard, he's also shifted ground: if there were no WMDs, well heck, he was one helluva bad guy anyway. So there's no need for any embarrassment postwar there either. Thus, pre-war: "the Iraq regime is certainly one of the cruellest the world has ever known" (Dec 14, 2002), "the Australian Government's compelling case that Iraq's WMDs pose a profound that to regional and global security" (March 19, 2003); and post-war, "it's nonsense to argue that Iraq never had WMDs" (June 19, 2003), "The essential logic of the war ... remains highly defensible" (Jan 21, 2004).

 

IT IS KELLY and White who provide the most interesting studies. Paul Kelly is a well-known and well-respected senior journalist with several books to his credit and his name on several university think tanks. He is well connected on both sides of politics and is a senior Murdoch editor. If anyone could have provided a powerful, dissenting voice in the Australian rush to war, it was he. But it was not to be.

Initially, in 2002, Kelly's columns in The Australian express his usual balanced and disinterested approach. He argues that Australia's interests lie closer to home in Asia, not Iraq, that war is not inevitable, that Bush should know after Bali that we need US support in this region and that the sanction of the UN is all-important. But some time around early February 2003, Kelly, like ONA in September, does a switch. He appears to believe that diplomacy is exhausted and a war can be won and won quickly. It may be that his exclusive interview with Howard on February 1, 2003, swayed him, that he was privy to briefings other mortals were denied, that he was impressed by Colin Powell's speech to the UN (he describes it as "effective" on Saddam's WMDs) on February 7 or that he found a new moral repugnance in Saddam and his regime. Whatever, and all of these are signaled in various Kelly writings, his columns take a new direction. The war is good and must proceed with dispatch. So:

"There is a logic and a justification for this war within Hussein's record, his sustained defiance of the UN and his refusal to disarm." (February 15, 2003)
"The argument that Howard, having seen such large [peace] marches, should now abandon his position is disreputable." (February 19, 2003)
"The pivotal point around which the assessment of John Howard's case for war revolves is whether you think Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction must be removed. If your answer is yes to this question, then you must back Howard." (March 15, 2003)

Kelly's column on the peace marchers was particularly vicious, questioning their motives and accusing them of assigning millions of Iraqis to further life under a monster. I was one of the marchers. I replied to Kelly's 900 words with 700 of my own (titled "What's happened to Paul Kelly?") and sent them to Kelly and his editor, Michael Stutchbury. The offer of a reply was refused.

In the months since the war, Kelly has been veering left and right, taking in the growing tragedy of Iraq and Western involvement. There's been a new set of "truths":

"Iraq's WMD was a lesser factor and a rationale used to win world opinion." (June 21, 2003)
"Iraq is turning into a salutary study on the limits to US power." (July 16, 2003)
"The judgments on which Australia based its reasons for war were not shared by our intelligence agencies." (March 2, 2004)

"Howard makes a mistake by pretending there was no terrorist risk in our Iraq involvement. Of course there was a risk." (March 3, 2004)

Hugh White in the SMH is more easily described, for there is no moral dimension to his arguments. As a strategic policy adviser, he is concerned with Australia's national interests and nothing more. He abhors Kelly's reliance on the hope that the war will be swift and lethal and therefore successful and just. He balances the hopes of the optimists and the fears of the pessimists and concludes:

Both of these views have merit. Either could be right. And if it comes to war everything will depend on which of the two visions is closer to the truth. Every other issue is secondary.
And again:

One should only go to war when the choice would still look wise if the war goes badly. (January 30, 2003)

White argues explicitly prewar that it is in our national interest to hitch ourselves to US interests because we'll need them later in Asia (February 10, 2003) but still hopes for a "quick, clean outcome" (March 20, 2003). White's pure self-interest stance makes it easy for him to withstand the moral consequences of the Iraq tragedy. A year on, he's still positing self-interest:

And what of the first policy judgment: that we needed to support the invasion to protect our alliance with the US? This is a respectable argument. (February 26, 2004)

So these were the primary foreign affairs commentators in our major newspapers on the war in Iraq. Apart from David Costello in Brisbane, there existed a consensus favouring the war, no revelations of intelligence community internal debates and certainly no sustained critique of government policy statements. At various points, Paul Kelly bemoaned the quality of the national debate. Yet he, too, failed to contribute his fair share.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that while the intelligence services relied 97 per cent on US and British data and views and Howard and Downer followed in lock-step with Bush and Blair, our media did very much the same.

When Howard left Sydney on February 8, 2003, bound for Washington, he would have been well pleased, despite the polls and the demonstrations. Kelly's "exclusive" had dominated the previous weekend and Howard's national address to Parliament on February 4 had been received well in the press. By February 10, according to Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack (Simon and Schuster, 2004), Howard was sitting in the Oval Office in a private meeting with Bush. They were discussing Iraq and Howard was geeing up the President. Woodward quotes Bush as telling Howard: "We're still in the mosh pit but thanks to your strong resolve we're finally getting clarity." (p.314) The reference is one of several in Woodward's book to personal traffic between Bush and Howard.

It's nice to know the Prime Minister could feel so free to pursue his own neo-con agenda against the wishes of the Australian people, against the views of many in the intelligence community and with a compliant media well and truly in tow. Australia: an intelligence, political and media colony.

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