by Bob Burton
(IPS) CANBERRA --
former head of the UN weapons inspection team in Iraq, Richard Butler, testified August 22 that he was puzzled that the U.S. government has not revealed what it has learned about claims of weapons of mass destruction from its interrogation of captured Iraqi leaders.
"Have they (the prisoners) already told the United States but the United States for some reason isn't telling... others? I'm making no accusation, I'm puzzled," Butler told a parliamentary committee hearing Friday into the intelligence used to justify Australia's support for the invasion of Iraq in March.
Butler, a former Australian diplomat, headed the Iraqi weapons inspection program between 1995 and 1998.
Butler told the committee that he was "fascinated" by the silence of the U.S. government on what it had been told by former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, oil adviser Gen. Amir Rashid and former presidential scientific adviser Gen. Amir al-Saadi.
Aziz and al-Saadi "knew everything," he said. "I don't know why we've not heard what they have told while in captivity," he added.
Australian troops, air force and naval units joined the United States and Britain in the invasion of Iraq despite massive street rallies around the country opposing the war. Australia, like Britain and the U.S. government, is now facing accusations their governments skewed intelligence information to justify invading Iraq.
Recounting a conversation he once had with Aziz, Butler dismissed the suggestion that Saddam Hussein's regime would provide weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda.
"Tariq Aziz once talked to me about this personally, of the great animosity between the Ba'athist regime in Baghdad and Osama bin Laden's movement... I would have been stunned if Saddam had wanted or would have allowed his weapons of mass destruction to be given to al-Qaeda, for example," he said.
Senior Australian government advisers sat at the back of the room nervously watching while Butler -- who earlier this week was appointed governor of Tasmania -- give evidence.
A draft set of questions prepared for government members to ask and prepared by the advisers was prefaced with 'Remember, Butler has made a commitment to keep his comments up to 1998 and refrain from making party political comments'.
While Butler avoided direct criticism of Prime Minister John Howard, the advisers grew agitated when Andrew Wilkie, a former senior analyst with the Office of National Assessments -- Australia's key international intelligence agency -- gave evidence after Butler.
In a blistering opening statement to the committee, Wilkie accused the government of lying to the Australian public by misrepresenting the intelligence it was provided from the Office of National Assessments.
"The government lied every time it skewed, misrepresented, used selectively and fabricated the Iraq story... The government lied when it associated Iraq with the Bali bombing, the government lied when it associated Iraq with the 'war on terror,'" he said.
When Wilkie resigned in March in protest against the Australian government policy on Iraq, the government misleadingly claimed he had little direct access to intelligence material from U.S. or British sources.
In an effort to discredit Wilkie, government advisers initiated a vicious whispering campaign around the press gallery claiming that he was mentally unstable. Wilkie said: "I have learnt that this government plays really hard."
He said there was a huge gap between the pre-war claims by the government that Iraq had a massive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and links with al-Qaeda, and the post-war reality that no weapons or substantive links had been found.
There were times, he said, when a lack of quality intelligence from within Iraq was replaced with "a flood of disinformation" from anti-Saddam sources "desperate for U.S. intervention."
Wilkie also rejects any link between the former Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda. "All this talk about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism is hollow," he added. "Much more likely was the proposition that 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."
Wilkie agreed with the proposition by committee chairman David Jull that the Australian government's rationale for the war had been "sexed up" and the cautious wording in assessments by the intelligence agencies was removed.
"Most often the government deliberately skewed the truth by taking the ambiguity out of the issue. 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 said.
Howard, however, does not retreat from his decision to declare war on Iraq or the faulty intelligence cited in its justification.
"Do I remain of the view that the assessment we made in relation to Iraq's weapons capacity at the time was justified? Yes. We didn't ask that the intelligence material be distorted," he told a Melbourne radio station on Friday morning.
But a scathing submission to the inquiry by Gordon Jockel, a career diplomat for 40 years and former chairman of the then National Intelligence Committee, lends weight to Wilkie's concerns about the standards of the government decision making.
"The issues we face require the highest standards of truth seeking and painstaking judgement. Our leaders have fallen short of these standards over Iraq," he wrote.
Wilkie, now without work other than a book he is working on, has no regrets about speaking out. "I have no regrets about the way that I did it and I would do it all again," he said after giving evidence to the committee.
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