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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26639

Senator CHRIS EVANS (2:29 PM) —My question is directed to Senator Hill in his capacity of Minister for Defence. Can the minister confirm that the recent report by the US military into the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison states that `attempts to interview Major George O'Kane'—the Australian military lawyer working at coalition headquarters in Baghdad at the time—`were unsuccessful'? Can the minister explain what attempts were made by the US military authorities to interview Major O'Kane and why those attempts were unsuccessful? Can the minister also assure the Senate that Major O'Kane's inability to be interviewed was not due to any decision by the minister or the government to frustrate such an interview taking place?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —Defence cannot find any record of an attempt to interview Major O'Kane, and Major O'Kane does not know of any attempt either. From some communications with the Pentagon over the weekend, we have not been able to find evidence of an attempt to interview Major O'Kane. The military inquiry asked if Major O'Kane would answer four set questions. The government's view, on advice, was that Major O'Kane should answer those questions and he did in fact answer those questions. The answers were forwarded to the investigating authority in Iraq. They were forwarded, I am told, by diplomatic bag to our embassy in Baghdad, and I read in the report that they did not arrive in time to be incorporated within the US report. We think it is important that they be included within the record of that report, however, and will ensure that that is done.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer. Is the minister concerned by the findings of the US investigation that Major O'Kane's letter to the Red Cross glossed over the concerns about prisoner abuse `close to the point of denying inhumane treatment, humiliation and abuse identified by the International Red Cross'. What action has the minister taken to clarify Major O'Kane's role? What justification does the government have for again preventing Major O'Kane from telling his story? Will the minister table the documents he said were provided to the US Army in answer to the questions posed by them?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —It was not a letter from Major O'Kane. As Senator Evans knows, he was the initial drafter of the letter. He was asked to draft it, as I recall from another extended Senate inquiry—that time the estimates committee—he went to the prison to interview the appropriate parties on the basis of the evidence he was given and he drafted a reply. It went to his superiors. Ultimately, Brigadier General Karpinski signed off on a letter and, according to Major O'Kane, he did not even see that final letter. In relation to the answers to the four questions, yes, I am happy to table those. I have been advised over the weekend that there is nothing within those answers that should not be put on the public record, except for an identification number in relation to one person, and that will be deleted. Subject to that, I am happy to table the answers.