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Transcript of doorstop interview of the Minister for Foreign Affairs: Washington: 4 May 2005: [Abduction of Douglas Wood]



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: May 4 2005

TITLE: Doorstop - Washington

Downer: I’ve been talking to people in New York about it and clearly the United Nations will be doing what it can to help.While I’m in Washington, I’ll obviously be encouraging the US administration to provide us with every assistance. Of course they are already doing that, so we appreciate the support we’re getting. At this stage, we have got some sketchy information only about what may have happened to Douglas Wood. I’m not sure that there’s a great deal to be gained from canvassing it all, excepting that he possibly was taken hostage between 24 and 48 hours before the release of the DVD. He may have been taken hostage in Baghdad, perhaps in his apartment or perhaps moving from his apartment possibly to Fallujah. We’re just not 100 per cent sure about that, so we’re still trying to establish those facts and that’s something our team on the ground will be working on. But in any case we are starting to get some sort of picture from people who know him. As for the people who have taken him hostage, we’re still not 100 per cent certain about that. The information we have is still confined to the information we’ve got from the DVD, so we’re still working on that.

Question: If he was taken from his apartment or on the way to work, would that imply that he was deliberately targeted as opposed to just a random kidnapping?

Downer: There’s no easy answer to that. Obviously we’ve thought about that. It could be that it was opportunistic, that he just happened to be there and didn’t have a great deal of security, or he may have been specifically targeted perhaps because of the sort of work he does which is engineering work. Perhaps because he’s seen to be either an Australian or an American. Obviously he’s an Australian. Certainly clearly a Westerner. It’s just not clear. A lot of people have been kidnapped as we all know. It’s estimated that about 400 people have been kidnapped since September 2003. Of those 400, thirty of them have been killed, 15 still haven’t been recovered and the rest for one reason or another have been released. Some of

those people though who have been kidnapped have been released when their firms decided to leave Iraq. It’s possible that in some cases, particularly in the case of people kidnapped from private companies that those companies have paid a ransom. So it’s just impossible to tell what the situation is going to be here until we have more information.

Question: So there’s been no ransom demands obviously?

Downer: No, we’ve virtually heard nothing more since the DVD was given to a news agency.

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 1

Question: Has the family ruled out paying a ransom?

Downer: Well I’m not going to speak for the family. We’ve obviously been in very close contact the family, and I think I should say to you they are really insistent on maintaining a low profile and so just avoid all comment about the family full stop. We’ve made it clear we don’t think a ransom payment is appropriate and we certainly won’t be changing our policies. To pay a ransom is just to encourage further kidnapping, that’s the trouble. So, we’ve always said we wouldn’t pay a ransom if an Australian was kidnapped. That’s a long standing policy of Australian governments and we’ve always said we wouldn’t be prepared to change our policy or contract our policy out to people who take Australians hostage.

Question: The response team has now arrived in Iraq. What are the first things that it will be doing?

Downer: It’s an operational matter and it’s very sensitive. I’ll say this much and that is, of course, they’ll be doing everything they can to obtain more information about the circumstances in which Douglas Wood was kidnapped, and to establish above all whose kidnapped him and where he is. The group that says they’ve kidnapped him - it’s a broad generic name - we know a bit about that group from last year’s activities they undertook, or have undertaken in that name last year. But these names move around and the people who associate themselves with those names change as well, so the name may not be enough information really - obviously we need to find out precisely who the people involved are, and that will be a big task.

Question: Are we really in the hands of local Iraqi networks?

Downer: Well not exclusively of course. We have a whole range of different mechanisms we can apply here. You will remember that we had a concern in September I think it was last year that an Australian had been kidnapped and we put into place our contingency plan then. We’ve been able to refine that a bit since essentially it’s a pretty good plan. We’ve already thought through in advance the sort of people we would need to contact. Some of them are Iraqis, some of them are foreigners. There’s the Iraqi transitional government, the Americans, the Italians, the British, the Turks, a number of other nationalities there that are able to provide a lot of assistance. Of course, we have our own people on the ground and information is coming in. We are getting more information now, there is a bit of a flow of information.

Question: How do you know who to trust?

Downer: Well that’s a lifetime question isn’t it? We make judgements on the basis of people who give you the information and particularly if you can get information corroborated.

Question: Is it your impression that the insurgency has gotten worse in the last month or so in Iraq?

Downer: Within the last month? Within the last week or so there’s been a bit of an upsurge is the impression I have, although since the elections on the 30th of January there’s been a

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 2

progressive decline in the insurgents activities, but it comes and goes a bit of course. They’ve had a few high profile targetings of particularly Iraqis in the last few days …

Question: Does the safety of the Australian troops who have gone over now … are they more at risk now given that the insurgency has increased in the last week?

Downer: That’s not to say necessarily they’ll maintain that same level of activity which, you don’t know, but I think it is unlikely. No, the assessment of the risk to the troops remains the same, but there are obviously risks to the troops. I mean, we wouldn’t have troops there who are heavily armed if we weren’t concerned about risks. There are risks to them and we shouldn’t minimize those, we shouldn’t try to pretend that there aren’t significant risks. There are, but they haven’t changed in the last few weeks.

Perhaps I should just mention one other thing. I did go out of my way while I was in New York today to contact Al Jazeera, and did a brief interview with Al Jazeera in the hope they will play that interview. I don’t know whether they have or not, but I’ve asked them to, bearing in mind that the hostage takers may watch Al Jazeera. And so what I’ve said will be translated into Arabic. I made the point that Douglas Wood is not a well man, he has a very serious heart condition, he has a problem with one of his eyes as well. We are concerned about his health in any case and being held hostage in this way, and being abducted, is only going to put further strain on his health. I made mention of his wife and his three brothers and his daughter and how they are all anxious about him, and how this kind of hostage taking is not going to yield any results and we would hope that the hostage takers would do the humane thing and release him.

Question: What would you practically like the Americans to do?

Downer: Well I don’t want to go into that too much, but the Americans may be able to provide us, well, can provide us, with a good deal of information of course. I think at this stage the thing to focus on is information; we need a lot more information than we have. Now what we won’t be doing is giving a running commentary as that information comes in because as you can imagine a lot of it is very sensitive. There’ll be intelligence information and so on and so we won’t be making that public, If we were to make everything public that’s the potential to jeopardize any effort we can make to try to get Douglas Wood released. It’s going to be difficult but the thing to understand is that we’re enormously determined at least to try to succeed.

Question: Mr Downer, is the Australian Government still closed to the idea of having David Hicks repatriated to Australia like Mamdouh Habib?

Downer: I don’t think there’s any need to do that. What we’ve done is have discussions with the Americans in recent times about David Hicks. We fairly frequently have talks with them about David Hicks. Our concern has been that the military commission process is stalled, and we would like the process expedited but there are court cases pending at the moment so the Administration can’t do much about that until these court cases are resolved. Once they are resolved they have undertaken to move quickly towards prosecution in the military commission.

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 3

Question: But if the court case isn’t stopping them from doing that …

Downer: Well, we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it but that, at this stage, is a hypothetical proposition. But assuming that the Administration is successful in the courts and the military commission proceeds, the Administration have told us they’re satisfied that there is a significant body of evidence that they can bring to bear in the case and they’re confident that evidence will stand up in court. But of course that will be a matter for the military commission to determine, not a matter for the Administration to determine. The reason I mention that is, in the case of Habib, in the end the Administration decided they didn’t want to use all of the information they had available to them and that was of course for security reasons. So, bearing in mind they weren’t in a position to proceed with a prosecution in the military commission, we thought it appropriate that he should come back to Australia. But for as long as the charges are pending and the Administration feels it has a strong case to make in the military commission, we think that procedure should be followed.

Question: What you’re saying though, it sounds like if the military commissions were stalled indefinitely you would ask for the same thing for Hicks that you have for Habib. That he be dealt with or sent home.

Downer: We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. We’ve not really thought a great deal about how we’ll respond in those circumstances. Our concern at the moment is the delay, but as you know there’s nothing that can be done about that. It’s a matter for the courts and we’ll just leave that in the hands of the courts. But once that’s out of the way, we’ll know what the answer of the courts is, and once that’s out of the way either the military commission will proceed or else the Administration will have to think about its next steps and we’ll be talking to them about those in the event they lose in the courts.

Question: Another human rights group has come out with a report on torture among detainees held in US institutions. What’s your position on that currently?

Downer: Which US institutions?

Question: Guantanamo Bay and other areas …

Downer: I haven’t seen the report and I don’t know what the group is. I had a flick through the newspaper this morning …

Question: You don’t condone torture …?

Downer: No, I’m not in favour of torture amazingly enough. I think I can safely satisfy you on that. I haven’t seen the report, what the definition is they’ve used here…

Question: Are you a personal friend of John Bolton, Mr Downer?

Downer: I know John Bolton pretty well because I’ve dealt with him, particularly over the development of the proliferation security initiative which has been designed to stop the spread of components and precursors that can be used for weapons of mass destruction. I must say to you my experience of dealing with him - I can’t coment on allegations that have been made

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 4

against him employees, that’s absolutely beyond my brief, I have no comment to make on that, I know nothing about it - but in my dealings with him I’ve found him very good to deal with. He’s forthright, he knows where he stands on issues but I can only tell you what I have found and the honest truth of the situation here is that I have found him good to deal with and as a man who in terms of his dealings with Australia has always been very courteous to us and whose been very supportive of Australia. Now, what other countries think about him and what he’s said about the UN, that’s a matter for all of those people or those organizations. For me, as an Australian foreign minister, he’s been good to deal with.

Question: Are you surprised by the reaction here to his nomination?

Downer: Well he’s a controversial figure so if you appoint somebody controversial to a position there’ll be controversy about it. I’m not really surprised there’s controversy about it. Anybody who knows his history knows that he has many friends and strong supporters and he has some enemies, and his enemies are lining up against him I suppose. That’s not really a matter for us though.

Question: Can you give us any information what you will speak with Condi Rice about tomorrow?

Downer: Of course I’ve spoken to her on the phone from time to time but this is the first formal meeting with her since she became Secretary of State. Obviously I had a lot to do with her when she was the National Security Adviser. We’ll be talking obviously about some of the things we’ve been discussing here in this doorstop. But there will be quite a focus in our discussions on Iraq, obviously Douglas Wood, and Iraq more generally and progress in Iraq, the security situation, timeframes for the production of the constitution and the referendum on the constitution and the next round of elections and those kinds of issues. We’ll be talking about East Asia, the East Asia Summit of course and the whole relationship between countries in East Asia. There is gradually emerging some kind of East Asia architecture. It’s very important the United States continues to maintain its role in the security of the East Asia region. It’s been fundamental to East Asian security for a long time, since the Second World War, and we support the continuation of a strong US engagement in the region. Things are changing in the region all the time and we need to talk about those issues.

Question; The State Department has lost a few Australiaphiles in the likes of Richard Armitage. Does that worry you at all?

Downer: No, I’ve talked about one person from the State Department already that’s been very much an Australiaphile. Condi Rice has been tremendously supportive of Australia. Ambassador Michael Thawley, and I, the Prime Minister, we’ve have had a very happy relationship with Condi Rice as the National Security Adviser. I would say she’s been extremely pro-Australian. The President himself, of course, he’s the ultimate decision maker, he’s very pro-Australian. And Dick Cheney. We negotiated with Bob Zoellick the free trade agreement, he’s taken Richard Armitage’s place. I don’t have a sense that change means we will have fewer Australiaphiles. We have a lot of strong friends in the Administration. I don’t think you should ever underestimate that.

Question: Will you raise the issue of China at all with Condi Rice tomorrow?

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 5

Downer: Of course, we’ll talk about all of the regional issues and China is one of them.

Question: There’s been an increase in agitation about China in the US, particularly in Congress over the trade relationship. Is that a worry to Australia?

Downer: Well not the trade relationship. That’s a matter for the Americans and the Chinese. We’re focused on our own trade relationship with China and we’ve begun negotiating a free trade agreement with China so that’s the path we’ve chosen. What path the US chooses, that’s another thing. Of course you shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which China’s economic growth is dependent on the United States, on the American market, on American investment, transfers of technology from the United States to China. It’s a relationship of mutual significance and there’s no doubt that the Americans want to maintain that relationship on an even keel.

Question: Mr Downer, why has it taken so long to find a replacement for Michael Thawley?

Downer: Well I don’t think its taken particularly long. He is about to leave though and I will take this opportunity because I might not get another opportunity in the media to say that he has been a truly great ambassador here. He’s been simply extraordinary in the work he’s done. His time here will be remembered forever because of the work he did to make the free trade agreement possible. The work he did with the Administration on Iraq. It was just an extraordinarily difficult issue, including politically very difficult. Even some people in the media were opposed to our policy as quite a surprise, but there we are. He’s made many, many friends. He’s been a model ambassador here. We’ll miss him very much. I’m very sorry we couldn’t persuade him to stay on indefinitely.

Question: Are you close to announcing a replacement?

Downer: We’ll announce a replacement when the time comes, and that person, he or she, I’m sure will do a very fine job. But that person will be stepping into gigantic shoes so it won’t be easy.

Question: Will it be a topic of conversation tomorrow with Condi Rice?

Downer: No, that’s a matter for us who we send as ambassador here. We don’t go to the Americans and ask who they would like. We need somebody who’s a champion of Australia, not a champion of any other country.

Question: They have to replace the US ambassador too. Is that close?

Downer: Again, I’m not really sure about that. I am a bit sure about the Australian case, but I’m not sure about what’s happening on the American side. I mean I’ve heard some gossip from people in the State Department but we’ll see. It’s up to them. They have a very good charge there at the moment, but they’ll announce someone sooner or later.

Question: … meeting with Gonzales … what are you going to discuss with him?

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 6

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 7

Downer: Well we’ll discuss some of things we’ve been talking about. Hicks. And we’ll talk about counter terrorism and how we’re getting on in those suite of issues. And I don’t know him so it’s an opportunity to get to know him.

(ends)