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Foreign Minister explains contact between Department of Foreign Affairs and ONA in September 2002; discusses Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

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Tuesday 2 March 2004

Foreign Minister explains contact between Department of Foreign Affairs and ONA in September 2002; discusses Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction


TONY EASTLEY: One of the mysteries still remaining is why, in the middle of September 2002, the Office of National Assessments made an overnight change to the way it depicted the threat posed by Iraq. 


The new assessment was prepared after a request from
the Department of Foreign Affairs. 


The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, is in our Canberra studio and is speaking to Matt Brown. 


MATT BROWN: Alexander Downer, what request did the Department of Foreign Affairs make of ONA in the middle of September 2002? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, to the best of my knowledge, the only request they made was some advice for the preparation of a speech that I was to give. They didn't make any… obviously the Department of Foreign Affairs doesn't tell ONA what analytical conclusions it should draw. 


MATT BROWN: So your department was asking for information for a speech you were going to make in public? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Yes, that's right, I think so, yes. 


MATT BROWN: The committee says that there was a change overnight, essentially. That on the 12th of September the ONA was saying things like "there is no firm evidence of new chemical and biological weapons production", and then on the 13th of September, they were putting it another way round stating that "Iraq is highly likely to have chemical and biological weapons". 


Does that reflect the sort of request your department made? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: No. I mean, look, try to understand this. I think the committee is entirely right in making the point that there's no evidence of any political interference with the intelligence agencies, of course there isn't. 


What would be the point? After all, if you really think this through logically, they are producing classified reports to the Government. They're not producing public documents to help bolster an argument that the Government might want to make publicly. 


They're producing private, classified documents which the Government privately reads, so… 


MATT BROWN: Although prior to this change the committee says there was, you're saying your department requested information for a speech… 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Yeah, yeah, but they didn't go to the ONA and say to ONA can you change your assessments 'cause that will fit in with the Minister's speech? Obviously they didn't do that. Of course they wouldn't. 


MATT BROWN: What did they do exactly? Tell us more about this request? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Um, well I'm sorry. I didn't prepare that material for the interview, I just would have to double check exactly what contact the department had with ONA, but certainly I didn't task the department to go to ONA or ring up ONA myself and ask them to change their assessments. 


Can I just make one other point about this, though? I don't think, myself - and obviously the committee disagrees with this - that the assessments did particularly change. I must say I am in full, I did have full access to all of the material. I didn't notice any particular change in ONA's assessments in September 2002. If you look at the… 


MATT BROWN: Do you know if ONA disagrees with this assertion? That there was a change? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: I think I'm right in saying that ONA was a little surprised that this particular assertion was made. 


MATT BROWN: To put it simply, did your department ask for a version of the intelligence reporting which was less equivocal? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, no, no, why would they? I mean of course they didn't and I mean, it's one of the difficult things in life is trying to prove your innocence. But seriously, if you really logically think about it, it makes no sense for any government to ask an intelligence agency to provide it with different assessments because these are not public documents. 


MATT BROWN: The committee Chairman, David Jull, says you should consult the Opposition about your choice of who will conduct the next inquiry into this issue. 


Will you consult the Opposition? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, we are the Government, we were elected at the last election, we did win the last election and I think on the basis of us being the Government, we'll make the decision on who we appoint… 


MATT BROWN: Will you consult them? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: …but we won't be appointing some controversial figure, and I think at the end of the day, whoever we consult, the point is that we won't be looking for a controversial figure to head the inquiry. 


MATT BROWN: You won't commit to consulting the Opposition? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, look I don't mind consulting the Opposition, but I mean it's not a big deal. 


I mean we want to have somebody who is broadly acceptable and responsible. 


The trouble with the Opposition here is that the Opposition has been playing very cynical politics. That's all they do. 


They say… they wanted an inquiry before this inquiry was already finished. 


MATT BROWN: Just getting to the matters examined by the inquiry, why didn't you tell the public when you were making your case for war that the Defence Intelligence Organisation believed that "in the short term Iraq's capability will be limited to a weapon of mass effect rather than a weapon of mass destruction"? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I think the job of the Government isn't to just be an analytical agency. The job of the Government is to make decisions… 


MATT BROWN: But why not tell the public… 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: …well can I just explain? 


MATT BROWN: …that this is what the reservations were within the intelligence community? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, because the Government, the Government went out and ultimately had to make its own judgments about the situation. 


Now the judgment we made and everybody made, other governments, the United Nations, even the Federal Opposition here was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. We… 




ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, just let me explain this because it's very important to understand this point, and we went out and made that point and what has been discovered since is that Iraq indeed did have dozens of weapons of mass destruction programs in clear breach of Security Council Resolution 1441… 


MATT BROWN: …programs, not stockpiles or arsenals. 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, I know people make that point, that they haven't, that the stockpiles haven't been found. Now whether they'll be found or not, we'll wait and see. 


MATT BROWN: But the question is about what you could see in front of you in the intelligence assessments, intelligence assessments which told you there was serious doubt, doubt that you didn't convey. 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: No. The intelligence assessments never said that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction. 


MATT BROWN: It was about the extent of that threat, the magnitude, how many there were, whether there were arsenals and stockpiles. 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: There were many dozens, if not hundreds, well there would have been hundreds and hundreds of pieces of information coming in. What sort of a government would we be if we were reading out hundreds and hundreds of pieces of information? Even the ABC would lose interest (laughs) in that after a while. 


MATT BROWN: What use is the truth if it's not the whole truth? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: This is the truth. We told the truth as we saw it at the time… 


MATT BROWN: The whole truth? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Absolutely and can I just make this point, that I think the people who claim the Government is lying, need to face up to the fact that they have a responsibility to tell the truth themselves. 


Now people said that the Government was lying that we had information that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This report proves beyond doubt that we were telling the truth, beyond any doubt at all. 


We passed on the assessments, we passed on the… 


MATT BROWN: …you didn't pass on all the assessments though. 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well of course not everything. The Government makes its own judgment ultimately. There were hundreds… 


MATT BROWN: But look at some of the specifics, hundreds of them and significant concerns within DIO. When you made the case for war, why didn't you tell the public that DIO said that there had been "no known offensive biological weapons research since 1991, no known biological weapons production since 1991 and no known biological weapons testing or evaluation since 1991"? 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, no. Can I do something a little unusual here, and accuse you of "sexing up"? Because what you are doing, and what we of course couldn't do when we're reading hundreds of these reports as they come through, is you are very, very selectively quoting from one that suits a particular - not necessarily your argument - but a particular anti-war argument.  


Now can I just say… 


MATT BROWN: Yeah, but these are doubts expressed by DIO which you did not … 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: …DIO never said, and let's not sex anything up here, DIO never said Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction, that this whole thing about weapons of mass destruction is a hoax. They never said that. 


ONA said… 


MATT BROWN: …the head of DIO says that he probably wouldn't have agreed with the assertion that there was a grave and immediate threat. 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, some people claim he said that. 


MATT BROWN: Oh no, it's quoted in the report. 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: I think, I think, look, the, look the overall point, well maybe. But the overall point I would make to you is that no intelligence organisation said there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. 


It never happened and the Government, if I could just finish on this point, is proud of what it's done. We got rid of Saddam Hussein, we got rid of his weapons of mass destruction program, he'll never be a threat again and I think that is an excellent outcome. 


MATT BROWN: Alexander Downer, thank you. 


ALEXANDER DOWNER: It's a pleasure. 


TONY EASTLEY: And the Minister for Foreign Affairs speaking there with Matt Brown.