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Iraq weapons fear letter was 'buried'

Sydney Morning Herald
By Marian Wilkinson, National Security Editor

A letter written by a former senior Foreign Affairs officer setting out grave concerns over the hunt for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction after the war was withheld from a Senate inquiry, blocking efforts to investigate US pressures on Australian personnel in Iraq, according to a new report.

The five-page letter, written by a senior Australian weapons analyst, Dr John Gee, explained his resignation from the US-led Iraq Survey Group, the body charged with finding Iraq's WMD.

The letter was given to the offices of the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, and the Prime Minister, John Howard, in early 2004, just as the Australian and US governments were dealing with reports that no WMDs had been found in Iraq.

According to a Senate report released yesterday, no official in the Federal Government would provide information on Dr Gee's resignation or on the high-level meetings Dr Gee held with Mr Downer, the Defence Department or the Prime Minister's office at the time.

Dr. Gee, who still works as a consultant to Australian intelligence, also declined to appear before the Senate inquiry or provide a copy of his resignation letter. The Senate inquiry into Duties of Australian Personnel in Iraq was prompted by revelations earlier this year by another former Australian weapons inspector, Rod Barton, about pressures from the CIA on the Iraq Survey Group and the abuse of Iraqi scientists under US interrogation.

Yesterday Mr Barton expressed disappointment that he was the only witness who agreed to give evidence to the inquiry: "It's a funny sort of democracy, it seems to me, where the truth is withheld. there are those in the Government that could have testified before the committee, in Foreign Affairs and Defence."

Mr Barton resigned from the Iraq Survey Group shortly before Dr Gee, after he witnessed pressure on the inspectors in Iraq to influence their interim findings. Mr Barton told the Howard Government about the pressure on the inspectors but it did not disclose either his or Dr Gee's resignation at the time.

"Making it known that the two most senior people Australia had in the Iraq Survey Group had quit within a few weeks of each other would have been embarrassing to everyone, to the Australian Government and to the Americans,"he told the Herald.

Significantly, the final report of the Iraq Survey Group confirmed that Iraq had no active WMD programs before the war, undermining the principal reason for the US led invasion.

Because no other witness agreed to appear, the Senate committee said it was unable to find sufficient evidence that the Iraq Survey Group was pressured over its interim findings.

"Mr Barton's evidence indicates that there were attempts to influence the ISG [Iraq Survey Group] but there is no corroborating evidence," the report concluded.

Mr Barton had also raised concerns with the Defence Department over his concerns that Iraq scientists under interrogation were being abused in a "softening-up" process. He specifically raised the case of Dr Mohammad al-Azmerli, who died while he was being held for interrogation in US custody.

Mr Barton had been told that Dr Azmerli had died of natural causes, but he later learnt an Iraqi autopsy found he had died of a blunt trauma inquiry. Mr Barton's allegations of abuse were kept confidential until he went public earlier this year. US military investigators had subsequently reopened an inquiry into the scientist's death.

The Senate report recommends that the Defence Department review procedures for briefing all Australian personnel operating overseas on its code of conduct and legal responsibilities; that they "must be made aware of their obligations with regard to human rights issues which includes their obligations to report any activity that seems illegal".



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