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Kerry O'Brien speaks with Brendan Nelson -

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Kerry O'Brien speaks with Brendan Nelson

Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson responds to criticisms from the Labor party's newest recruit,
Australian military lawyer Mike Kelly.


KERRY O'BRIEN: And to respond to the criticisms I'm joined now by Defence Minister Brendan Nelson
in Canberra.

(to Brendan Nelson) Brendan Nelson, before we go to the detail of Colonel Kelly's criticisms, would
you agree he commanded respect and credibility inside your department and with the US allies in

BRENDAN NELSON, DEFENCE MINISTER: Good evening, Kerry. Well firstly, my personal dealings with
Colonel Kelly have been limited, but I thank him, as I do all the men and women who've served in
the Australian army for their service to our country. Certainly he worked diligently. He was
respected by quite a few people with whom he worked, not only in Defence but overseas.

BRENDAN NELSON: But I'd also point out that his version of events is disputed in your package there
by General Peter Cosgrove, and I also note that his version of events and the information he
provided to the Cole Royal Commission was also disputed by others involved, and those two things
are obviously a matter of record.

KERRY O'BRIEN: OK, well let's take the specific criticisms one by one. Abu Ghraib, Colonel Kelly
says that he regularly raised concerns about prisoner abuse in situation reports back to Canberra
from June 2003, specifically about Abu Ghraib from September 2003. Your predecessor as minister,
Robert Hill, denied any knowledge of Abu Ghraib before January of 2004. Is that really credible in
light of what Colonel Kelly has revealed?

BRENDAN NELSON: Well Kerry, all of those events surrounding the appalling issues at Abu Ghraib have
well been traversed throughout the media, and all sorts of public discussion. We know as a matter
of fact that no Australian Defence Force personnel were involved. We know those who were
responsible for that cruel and inhumane mistreatment have been dealt with through the judicial
system in the United States. And we also know that when the information was coming forward, that
Senator Hill, my predecessor, and General Cosgrove responded to it appropriately.

But in an overall sense Kerry, you've got to ask yourself in hindsight, and really what Mike Kelly
is doing, he's saying ... he's said a number of things in the story. The first is that he basically
supported the removal of Saddam Hussein, and I'd think that any sensible person would appreciate
that, particularly given the dreadful human rights abuses under that regime. The second thing he's
doing is saying that in hindsight once Saddam Hussein had been removed, then things should have
been done differently.

And I think all of us, the American President, the British Prime Minister, our own government agree
that in hindsight, we would do things differently. And personally I don't see what's to be gained
in helping Iraqis today to stabilise that country, to deal with al Qaeda, to stabilise that region
and protect our own interests by going over things that have gone through, in one case, a royal
commission and extensive public debate in another with Abu Ghraib.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Particularly if it reflects poorly on the government.

BRENDAN NELSON: Well Kerry, look I'm very happy to discuss any of these issues with you but...

KERRY O'BRIEN: Let's go back to Abu Ghraib very quickly ... go back to Abu Ghraib specifically,
because I don't think you quite answered the question there. The issue .... when Abu Ghraib was
finally exposed by an American journalist in 2004, the Australian Government made a point of saying
that they didn't know about it before January of 2004. The real issue is did the Australian
Government, did your government know about it for months before it was publicly exposed, and could
you in that time, as in could Robert Hill, could John Howard, could Alexander Downer, have raised
directly with the Americans, concerns about human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib?

BRENDAN NELSON: Well Robert Hill, then Defence Minister, Minister Alexander Downer as Foreign
Minister, General Cosgrove as the Chief of Defence, Kerry, dealt with all of those issues.


BRENDAN NELSON: On the record, at the time. And they've gone through that both in the Parliament,
in estimates inquiries, and in the public arena, and I'm sure also heard in your programs.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But this is the first time we've heard from his lips ... this is the first time we've
heard from the lips of the senior army officer directly involved with those issues, that he was
warning his superiors in the Defence Department back from June to September and onwards of 2003,
that abuses were going on with detainees.

BRENDAN NELSON: Well Kerry look, I will examine the records within Defence to have a look at that.
But those issues have been well traversed. We may not have heard them from Mike Kelly's lips, but
we've certainly read about them in print. We've heard the advice given to us by General Cosgrove,
then Chief of Defence, my predecessor Robert Hill.

But I go back again to things that Mike Kelly said in the interview about his concern for the
preservation of human life - and I say to him, and I say to the Labor Party - if we really want to
preserve Iraqi life, is that more likely to occur if we cut and run from Iraq, which we were told
yesterday by the democratically-elected Iraqi foreign minister that we should not do. Or is it a
question of staying there until we stabilise the country?

And as far as deBaathification is concerned Kerry, that's one of the key things that the
democratically-elected Iraqi Parliament is currently dealing with, in addition to the hydrocarbons
legislation to distribute oil revenues. That's one of the key things that is a part of very much
the Baghdad security plan. So, going over ancient history I don't think is going to do anything,
Kerry to help the Iraqis and stabilise the region.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Brendan Nelson, it's not quite so ancient. There seems to be a consistent pattern to
Colonel Kelly's recollections that he was ignored with his warnings on Abu Ghraib, that he was not
to get involved in post-war strategy, this he was ignored with his warnings about the AWB
[Australian Wheat Board] kickbacks that the jig was up for AWB, and he's not alone either when he
voices the view that the world is now a less safe place than it was before Australia went to war
with America in Iraq.

BRENDAN NELSON: Well Kerry, firstly his - as I said earlier - his recollection of events and what
he stated in relation to AWB, was disputed by others that were involved. We've had a complete royal
commission, Australia only...

KERRY O'BRIEN: But he wasn't ... he wasn't invited to give evidence at that royal commission.

BRENDAN NELSON: Well in fact, there might be a message in that too Kerry. I mean, Australia was
only one of the 66 countries identified in the Volker Inquiry that actually had any kind of
extensive examination of the issues, and the conclusion was as you know, that AWB executives
deliberately sought to mislead the Government.

And in relation to Abu Ghraib, as I say, all of those issues have been covered and the perpetrators
have been dealt with. It's important also that we make sure Kerry, that as we go forward into the
future that we focus on the fact today that Iraq, the democratically-elected Iraqi government, the
United Nations Security Council through Resolution 1723, those ... the Government and the UN is
basically asking Australia, the US, the Britain and other countries to continue to provide
assistance, training and support and security to the people of Iraq.

And if you go back to one of Mike Kelly's other assertions, by the way Kerry, in terms of Australia
being an occupying power and getting actively involved in the reconstruction of Iraq, under
Resolution 1483 with the Fourth Geneva convention, it was recognised the United States and the
United Kingdom were the key countries that were occupying, until the Iraqi people basically took
over in July 2004.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And of course there's now a long list of credible critics testifying to the
disastrous Coalition post-war strategy. Colonel Kelly is not alone in that is he? And he was
raising those issues at the time, he says.

BRENDAN NELSON: Well Kerry ... well Kerry, Kerry I say to you this: that if we could go back, when I
say we, I mean the Coalition, the countries that stood up for the view that the world was better in
the post-September 11 world without Saddam Hussein, who tortured and murdered on average 70,000
people a year for 15 years, I say to you Kerry, if we could go back to that period after removing
Saddam Hussein, I think all of us would do some things differently, but we've got to deal with the
reality. What we see...

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well one of their ... we're just about out of time Dr Nelson, but one of the realities
is how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died since the war?

BRENDAN NELSON: Well I can tell you Kerry, that many, many more would have died...


BRENDAN NELSON: ...if the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries were not
there training the Iraqis, providing security. The killing is being done by insurgents, and it's
currently predominantly being done by al Qaeda which is an enemy to the civilised world as much as
it is to Iraqis and to Australia. Let's look to the future.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Brendan Nelson, thanks for talking with us.

BRENDAN NELSON: Thank you, Kerry.

(c) 2007 ABC