Eighteen months ago Australia, along with the United States and the United Kingdom, was a frontline member of President George W Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing”, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard was justifying a pre-emptive strike on Iraq on the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s access to and preparedness to use weapons of mass destruction. Australia committed 2 000 military personnel to the war — 850 remain today.
But this week Howard’s government has been mulling over a report by former senior Australian diplomat Philip Flood, which criticises the lack of proper evaluation of claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but which falls short of finding that Howard’s government placed pressure on agencies to deliver assessments justifying the war against Iraq.
Flood’s report, which examines Australia’s intelligence agencies’ capabilities, echoes similar findings made in reports delivered by the US Senate intelligence committee and Lord Robin Butler in the UK last week.
According to a report published on Tuesday in The Age newspaper, Howard’s government considered the Flood report at its regular Cabinet meeting on Monday this week.
But in contrast to his counterparts, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it appears that Howard is not using the Flood report’s criticisms of the actions of intelligence agencies in the lead-up to the Iraq war to reform Australia’s intelligence network.
Howard said this week: “I think we are very well served by our intelligence services and I don’t think there is a case for any big changes, any fundamental rearrangements.”
However, the Australian government has approved a major funding increase for one of the agencies that played a key role in interpreting intelligence in the lead up to the Iraq war, the Office of National Assessments (ONA). Howard is expected to announce shortly that the ONA will double the number of analysts it employs from the current 70 to nearly 150.
The ONA was singled out for criticism in March this year by an Australian parliamentary committee that found it did not examine the accuracy of claims about Iraq made by overseas agencies.
Howard is also rejecting claims from opposition parties that his government sought to influence the way intelligence agencies publicly presented data about Iraq. Howard said: “There was no political interference in the intelligence services. We have not heavied the intelligence services, we have not manipulated intelligence.”
The leader of the country’s largest opposition party, the Australian Labour Party, Mark Latham, said this week: “We … need to ensure that the government’s not just shifting blame on to the agencies. The government’s got to take the blame itself for the decision to go to war in Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.”
Latham’s party opposed Australian participation in the Iraq war and wants to ensure the return of remaining Australian military personnel from Iraq by Christmas.
Howard has pledged to release an unclassified version of the Flood report to the public once his government has reviewed the findings.