‘Lies’ Down Under

Pop quiz: Who is Andrew Wilkie?

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Don’t feel too bad if the answer doesn’t leap to mind. Mainstream US papers have devoted about as much coverage to Wilkie as they have to the pitcher of Tokyo’s Little League World Series-winning team (Yuutaro Tanaka, by the way).

For the record, Wilkie is the former senior Australian intelligence analyst who resigned in March when it became clear that Prime Minister John Howard intended to follow the Bush administration into a war against Iraq. And now, Wilkie has become one of the central figures in an increasingly bitter and personal debate over Howard’s decision — and the shaky intelligence he used to justify it.

Sound familiar? Just wait.

Testifying before a parliamentary panel investigating that intelligence, Wilkie declared that — like officials in Washington and London — Howard and his team exaggerated and fabricated information about Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction in order to create a more compelling case for war.

    “‘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, or ONA, told the inquiry.

    ‘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.”

Surprising nobody, Howard has aggressively dismissed Wilkie’s claims, declaring that the former analyst is the one “guilty of distortion, exaggeration and misrepresentation.” As Mark Riley of the Sidney Morning Herald reports, Howard is essentially passing the buck — declaring that each of his speeches about Iraqi WMD “were checked for accuracy by ONA.”

Now, where have we heard that before? Oh yeah, we heard it from the lips of our own leader when pressed on the now-infamous ’16 Words’ in his State of the Union Address: “I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services.”

But why bother passing the buck? Michelle Gratton, writing in the Melbourne Age, points out the obvious: Howard could easily clear up any lingering doubts about his case for war by simply releasing the intelligence assessments on which his speeches were based. At the very least, Gratton argues, the information should be made available to the parliamentary panel.

    “At one level it should be simple for the committee to determine whether the material was “sexed up”. Next month it will grill ONA and the other intelligence agencies. If it is given access to written records, it is a matter of comparing documents — the flavour of what the Government was told, with the flavour of what it told the public.

    With the war over, there wouldn’t be genuine security barriers to making available quite a lot of this material. Where sources or operational procedures could be compromised, that data could be withheld or edited.”

But Howard and his cohorts — taking an obvious cue from his war party colleagues in Washington and London — have adopted a defense based on rhetoric and personal attacks instead of transparency. In particular, the Canberra crowd seem intent on diminishing Wilkie’s claims by demolishing Wilkie (Foreign Minister Alexander Downer went so far as to describe the former analyst as a “hysterical malcontent”). And the country’s war party pundits are falling right in line. Jim Nolan, writing in the Murdoch-owned Australian, seems intent on reducing Wilkie to little more than a publicity-seeking crank while wondering why the former ONA officer hasn’t produced concrete evidence to back up his claims.

    “Now reaching the end of his Warholesque 15 minutes of fame, Wilkie is doing his best to extend his shelf life as a self-appointed whistleblower by resorting to fact-free allegations. Remember that he had weeks, if not months, of advance notice to prepare his submission to the parliamentary committee. This is a forum where submissions attract parliamentary privilege.

    That Wilkie was unable to cite a single specific example to support his claims speaks volumes for his credibility.”

The logical hole in Nolan’s rant — obvious even from the other side of the globe — is pointed out by Gratton: The documents Wilkie would need to substantiate his allegations are the same documents Howard has refused to make public. As for the personal attacks — Wilkie appears to be taking them in stride, telling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he believes it would be “far more valuable, far more useful for this country if instead of attacking those who criticise it, the Government sought to explain in a sensible and honest way why there is such a gap between their justification for the war and what we all now know for sure.”

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