On Monday, March 22, Mark Latham made the war on Iraq and what it showed about the John Howard�s fitness for lead on national security a front line election issue. (See A rotten lousy disgrace.)
His speech seeking to censure Howard for not allowing AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty to tell us the truth about the increased danger we faced from terrorism due to our invasion of Iraq was a triumph. Howard was on the ropes with nowhere to go but down for the count (see Could Howard be gone before we vote?)
Better still for Latham, Bush�s former top counter terrorism adviser Richard Clarke � the man Bush trusted to lead the September 11 reaction team in the White House, was systematically exposing Bush lying over the bodies of his people to persuade them to support a war which helped the terrorists� cause. (See Bush before September 11: the awful truth.)
Perhaps buoyed by strong polls in last Tuesday�s Australian newspaper, Latham told Sydney radio 2UE he wanted our troops home for Christmas. There were lots of ifs and buts:
Mark Latham: We believe we have a responsibility to rebuild [Iraq] and as soon as that responsibility is discharged they should be back here. Hopefully, that will be before the end of the year. Under a Labor government our strategy is to get them back as soon as that responsibility is discharged and you have got a sovereign hand over to a new Iraq government.
Mike Carlton: Well, theoretically, there is going to be a hand over in June.
ML: Yes, that is theoretically, but we have to look at the timetable. Things can go wrong and it might be delayed. I am hoping that by the end of the year the Australian troops will be back here for the defence of Australia, having discharged their international responsibilities, and back on Australian soil for the good protection our country.
MC: But how do you decide? You are being a bit wishy-washy there, leaving a lot of room to move. How do you decide when they have discharged their responsibilities and to bring them back?
ML: Well, at the point of a sovereign hand over to a new Iraq government. As you say, there is a timetable – a very tentative timetable – for the middle of the year. Things can go wrong, things can get pushed back a while, but our intention is to ensure that once the responsibility is discharged – and that is at the time of the hand over to the new sovereign government in Iraq – then Australian troops will come back under a Labor government.
MC: And you would hope they would be home by Christmas?
ML: Yes, if that timetable of midyear is adhered to then that would be the case. If a federal election is held this year, say the election was in September and there was a change in government, we would be hoping to have them back by Christmas, certainly. (See A question of timing.)
Howard pounced, beating up the comments to insist that Latham had made a definitive announcement that he�d �cut and run�, not simply stating a goal to work towards.
I reckon Latham made two mistakes. First, he was scheduled to give a major foreign policy speech next week setting out the major differences between the two parties. This is the way to announce national security policy, not a throwaway line on talkback.
Still, his 2UE comments were open ended enough to allow for unforseen circumstances to intervene, like a civil war in Iraq upon the transfer of authority to the Iraqis on June 30. They also allowed a change of heart if � as most of the world wants � the Americans handed control of the transition to democracy to the UN and asked Australia to stay.
The story should have been a one-day wonder, or even turned into a positive for Labor. I mean, when does Howard intend to bring the troops home? When the U.S. says it�s OK, as usual?
But Latham�s got a lot of Keating – another hard-yards Sydney westie – in him. Instead of hosing Howard�s beat up down, he�s led with his chin ever since, giving Howard a rung on his comeback ladder of opportunity.
I don�t know about you, but when I saw Latham say we had to bring our 850 troops home after June 30 �to defend Australia� I was disgusted. Pure populism it was, and I thought Australians would see through it big time, which they have.
It was painful to see Latham�s foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd on Lateline last night having to dodge and weave to avoid stating the obvious � that he did not agree with Latham�s hard and fast timetable for exit. Latham has neutralised Kevin Rudd with this decision, damaging one of his best assets on national security.
Is Latham really saying the danger to Australia is so acute that we need 850 troops to join the 51,0000 troops stationed in Australia? That�s scare mongering at its worst.
As Howard rightly said speaking to his motion in the House of Representatives today that troops should not be withdrawn before the job is done, that would mean hauling back our troops from East Timor and the Solomons too. Stupid.
What�s worse, however, is the fact that Latham�s decision to go in harder when challenged by Howard now makes the American alliance central to the Iraq/national security debate, and that suits Howard, not Latham.
In dangerous times, many Australians want good relations with the U.S. Other Australians are appalled at the Bush administration, but fear the U.S. response to a unilateral pullout. �With us or against us�, remember? And remember 1975, when, according to some, the CIA played a part in ousting Gough Whitlam?
It�s now obvious Howard did the wrong thing by Australia and the West by invading Iraq without the support of the majority of Australians for reasons he would not disclose under cover of Iraq�s alleged WMDs.
But we did invade, and we�re there now trying to secure the peace, a vital task for the West to stop Iraq being over run by al Qaeda and company.
As invaders, Australia also has a legal and moral responsibility to stay the course. We also have a responsibility to add our voice to the growing calls for Bush to abandon his imperialist dream of owning Iraq and looting it and over authority to the UN. That�s powerful, coming from an ally on the ground in Iraq.
I reckon Latham disobeyed Webdiarist Robert Bosler�s good advice for when the shit hits the fan. In An artist’s blueprint for a Latham win he wrote:
What does he do when the mountainous screaming whirlwind is just too much for now? Absolutely, he must say nothing. This crashes against the screaming mass and all hell will break loose. His minders will be screaming at him: “you must speak to the media or they will tear you apart”. He must let the media do just that.
Let’s say that again. He must ignore the exhortations to comment under those circumstances and if the media tears him apart, he must let them.
This is a standout point. It only lives successfully under these conditions: little time to go coupled with uncertainty, which is where we are now before the next election. It works because it creates a vacuum. A vacuum is powerful. It sucks things into it. During times when Mark is uncertain, if he ignores the screaming mass he then gives himself time to centre his spirit and get on top of it again.
Let the media tear him apart – because they will have nothing from him to tear apart. The media will be tearing apart only the substance that the media itself throws at it. Mark is silent. He, then in good time, has regathered within himself, he has created the vacuum, there is greater intensity of interest in what he has to say, and when he speaks again he speaks with incisiveness and strength and fills the vacuum with substance of his own choosing.
The net result: Mark has reset the agenda. He is back on top of it all, and the game plays out under his renewed terms and conditions. This point is crucial to his winning. Failure to do so, by listening to the exhortations to speak under duress, will show only a man not yet ready to lead.
Richard Clarke is in the process of destroying the presidency of George Bush. He�s proving that Bush gave al Qaeda a low priority before S11 despite strong contrary advice, and that after S11 he put invading Iraq above fighting al Qaeda. Again, this was contrary to advice from his most senior experts that there was no connection between Saddam and S11 and that invading Iraq would strengthen, not weaken, the real enemy.
There are questions Howard needs to be asked. What was our intelligence agencies� and foreign affairs advice on whether the invasion would make the world safer or more dangerous? What was our analysis of the real reasons for the invasion? Why did Howard not accept the advice of the head of the Defence Intelligence Organisation Frank Lewincamp that the WMD intelligence on Iraq did not justify an invasion? (See Mark Forbes story below). Why did Howard not tell the Australian people before the war that it risked making a us a bigger terrorist target? Why didn�t Howard tell the Americans that we�d focus on our region, where al Qaeda affiliates are active, and leave a region we had clean hands on to others?
Instead, the focus is on Latham, and it�s hurting. It�s allowing Howard to sound almost convincing when he accuses Latham of �blatant anti-Americanism�.
Latham moved too fast and too recklessly after his triumph early last week. He�s made his first big mistake after beginning to build a compelling case that Howard was a danger to our national security, not the man to trust with it in dangerous times.
A senior member of the press gallery told me early last week that Latham�s honeymoon would end soon, citing an �amateur hour� Latham backroom team running around like headless chooks.
Latham needs to settle down and stay cool. For Australia�s sake.
The spy, the reporter and that war seminar
by Mark Forbes
23/02/2004, The Age
A spy chief says he was a source of an Age report. Mark Forbes responds. `Were we led by the nose?” asked Frank Lewincamp. The director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, Australia’s top military intelligence agency, was considering the accuracy of intelligence reports in the lead-up to last year’s Iraq war.
Standing before senior students, public servants and military officers from Australia and overseas at an Australian National University lecture in Canberra, the normally discreet intelligence chief answered the question with a series of startling statements, given the political maelstrom brewing over the allies’ failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction.
Mr Lewincamp, speaking under the “Chatham House rule”, clearly believed he would not be reported. The rule states that information from such meetings may be used, but neither the speaker nor the meeting can be identified.
Asked about the use of material aired in this fashion, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer this week said: “They tell you when you go to Chatham House, which is in London, they tell you when you make a speech there that your speech is under Chatham House rules.
“And apparently under Chatham House rules, that means nobody can report who you are by name, or your position. But they can report that a particular opinion was expressed.”
Only after both Mr Lewincamp and the organisers of the lecture had identified it as the primary source of a report in The Age on February 14 – and contested its accuracy – have I confirmed this. In the months since the lecture I have tried to persuade Mr Lewincamp and other intelligence figures to be quoted by name.
With intensifying debate over what the Government was told about Iraq’s WMD and how it used intelligence to justify war, and being told that a parliamentary committee had been unable to get to the bottom of the issue, The Age decided to publish on Saturday the 14th, citing unnamed sources.
In his confession to the Senate last Tuesday night, Mr Lewincamp outed himself as the source and stated he had had four subsequent conversations with me. I can recall five conversations, culminating in a phone call the Friday before The Age published its report. I remain bound to respect the confidentiality of any private conversations with him and those I have had with several other intelligence and Government officials.
“I believe that I am, at least in part, the official to whom Mark Forbes refers in his article,” Mr Lewincamp told his inquisitors, then added: “I have never made, nor would I make, a number of statements attributed to that official.
“I have never said that the Bush Administration’s claims justifying an invasion were exaggerated, nor have I said that the Government was told that Iraqi WMD did not pose an immediate threat. Overall, the article characterises these issues in ways in which I do not.”
At the lecture, last September, Mr Lewincamp discussed a range of less sensitive intelligence issues before moving on to Iraq.
He said the Australian intelligence support to the fighting itself was very good, but its support to policy and decision makers was mixed, particularly in predicting the response of the Iraqi leadership.
On WMD, “we have always told a consistent and reasonable story”, he said. “We had said Iraq had a WMD program, but to a large part it represented a latent capability. We said the degree of weaponisation of chemical and biological material in Iraq was unknown.”
Chemical and biological weapons could be produced in a short time, Mr Lewincamp reported, and the prospect of Iraq having weapons could not be discounted.
“We had to prepare the military for the worst-case scenario and the possibility they could be operating in a chemical and biological weapons environment.”
As a student at the seminar, I led a series of questions.
Asked if the intelligence was exaggerated and if Iraq presented a clear and present danger, Mr Lewincamp said: “We were less forward leaning than US agencies.”
Surprised, I asked: “Was the magnitude of the threat enough to justify the invasion of Iraq?”
“No,” was his blunt reply.
“Do you mean before the war?” “Yes,” Mr Lewincamp said, adding: “Some ministers may wish they hadn’t concentrated so strongly on WMD.”
In January 2003, Defence Minister Robert Hill had asked him “why US agencies were more gung-ho”, Mr Lewincamp said. “He now acknowledges we were closer to the truth.”
Questioned about the claim this week, Senator Hill said: “I do not know about the gung-ho, but if I saw difference in assessments about an issue as serious as this one then it would not be unusual for me to be asking for an explanation.”
Mr Lewincamp also revealed, under questioning at the ANU, that his agency identified deficiencies in US intelligence claims, citing US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s plea last February to the UN for it to act against Iraq. “We reported at the time (that) Colin Powell exaggerated in one or two of his statements. He went beyond the available evidence.”
However, Mr Lewincamp told the seminar, “there was pressure brought to bear on us because we were different and standing out more”.
In future the DIO staff should have more faith in their instincts, he said. In the US, the State Department “now believes it should have stood up more and questioned more”.
Mr Lewincamp said the comments he made at the lecture were consistent with evidence, also revealed by The Age last week, to a Senate committee last November 5.
He said then that any weapons Iraq held would be limited in number and “likely to be fragile or degraded and in a relatively poor state” after being left over from the 1990-91 Gulf War.
“There is a range of intelligence information that Iraq was engaged in the destruction of its capabilities,” he said.
The revelations have caused immense discomfort for the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU. That an official of Mr Lewincamp’s stature would attend was due to the close links between those running the course and the defence and intelligence community.
The head of the centre, Ross Babbage, and the lecturer of the intelligence course, Ross Thomas, have come from senior positions in the Department of Defence and intelligence agencies.
Senator Hill has already suggested that intelligence officials should no longer deliver such lectures, but he and the intelligence community are likely to face further questioning in the near future.
Last week’s controversy makes an independent judicial inquiry into WMD intelligence essential, the Opposition has claimed, and even a Government-dominated parliamentary committee report is set to recommend a further investigation when it is tabled on March 1.
This report first appeared in Saturday’s Age, distribution of which was severely disrupted by an industrial dispute.
Director rejects claims
The Defence Department secretary yesterday issued a response on behalf of the Defence Intelligence Organisation’s director, Frank Lewincamp, to an article entitled “The spy, the reporter and that seminar”, published last Saturday and today.
“The article repeats claims made by Mr Forbes in an earlier article in relation to a presentation given by the director of the DIO, Lewincamp, to a seminar at the Australian National University,” the secretary, Ric Smith, said. “Mr Lewincamp has already given evidence to the Senate Defence Estimates Committee in which he rejected claims made in the original article.
“Following publication of (Saturday’s) article, Mr Lewincamp has again confirmed to me that his statement to the Senate Committee was correct. He has also rejected the new claim in (Saturday’s) article that pressure was brought to bear on DIO over its assessments.”