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Parliamentary inquiry into intelligence agency assessments of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction will be tabled today.

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Monday 1 March 2004

Parliamentary inquiry into intelligence agency assessments of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction will be tabled today


TONY EASTLEY: The Howard Governme nt will be asked to set up a new inquiry into pre-war intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. 


A parliamentary inquiry will today deliver its report on the intelligence agencies who prepared the pre-war assessments of Iraq's capabilities and as Rafael Epstein reports there's expected to be some criticism of them, but no judgements that the threat was grossly exaggerated. 


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: The parliamentary inquiry was asked to assess the accuracy of the intelligence assessments produced by Australia's various intelligence agencies. With most of the raw data coming from overseas, today's report will be more a judgment on Australia's capabilities and its independence from allies than a judgment about how politicians portrayed the pre-war intelligence. 


The agency closest to the Prime Minister is the Office of National Assessments, or ONA, and the head of the ONA, Peter Varghese, has told newspapers his agency's assessments, particularly on the issue of actual weapons stockpiles was more cautious than the US and UK assessments. 


The ONA believed Iraq probably had some stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, but there was little hard information about their quantity or location, and Peter Varghese believes the jury is still out on whether they really existed at all. 


The ONA is expected to receive some harsh judgment today, in part because its assessment of "probable stockpiles" differed to that of the other major assessment agency, the Defence Intelligence Organisation, or DIO. 


Its chief, Frank Lewincamp, told a Senate estimates hearing last year, his pre-war assessment was the weapons stockpiles were degraded. 


FRANK LEWINCAMP: Iraq had actually produced and weaponised quantities of chemical and biological weapons in the past, but that the then current, that is 2002-03, state of those weapons was unknown, they were likely to be fragile or degraded and in a relatively poor state and that Iraq had the capability to produce chemical and biological weapons within a relatively short period, that is a matter of weeks. 


But we also made the judgment that we had no evidence that Iraq had done so. 


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Both Australian assessments seem a long way from the British claims of weapons usable with 45 minutes and even further from the White House claim that there was quote "no doubt" Iraq had reconstituted nuclear weapons. 


The parliamentary inquiry will have judged how the lack of evidence that Iraq had not disposed of its weapons became a possibility and then a probability that they still had them. 


And it seems the ONA's judgment of that probability was different to the Americans, just 14 months before the war began. 


Carl Ungerer was an analyst on the ONA's Iraq desk until January 2002 and last year he was a senior Labor Party adviser. 


CARL UNGERER: ONA and Australian agencies in general tend to be more cautious, particularly on questions like Iraq and WMDs because, as everyone knows, Australia has no independent means of verifying or confirming some of the assessments. 


There was also a degree of what someone has called faith based intelligence, there was a belief that Iraq maintained WMD programs and therefore that belief was reflected in some of the reporting. 


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Whether today's report answers the question of when a possibility become a probability, it won't answer whether the politicians help turn the probability into a certainty. 


The Age newspaper has reported that the head of the DIO was asked at a university seminar by its reporter if the magnitude of the threat justified the invasion? The reporter claims "no" was his blunt reply. 


Frank Lewincamp said later he never accused the Government of exaggerating the threat. 


But now that the man who lead the weapons search in Iraq, David Kay, has said we were all wrong, the political focus will turn to exactly what sort of inquiry should come next, and whether it should report before the next election. 


TONY EASTLEY: Rafael Epstein reporting.