John Howard: ignored advice. Photo: Kate Geraghty
Former prime minister John Howard's justification this week on why we went to war against Iraq in 2003 obfuscates some issues.
I was the secretary to the federal parliamentary intelligence committee from 2002 until 2007. It was then called the ASIO, ASIS and Defence Signals Directorate committee - which drafted the report Intelligence on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction. Howard refers to this committee in his speech justifying our involvement in the war.
The reason there was so much argument about the existence of such weapons before the war in Iraq 10 years ago was that to go to war on any other pretext would have been a breach of international law. As Howard said at the time: ''I couldn't justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime. I've never advocated that. Central to the threat is Iraq's possession of chemical and biological weapons and its pursuit of nuclear capability."
So the question is what the government knew or was told about that capability and whether the government ''lied'' about the danger that Iraq posed. At the time, Howard and his ministers asserted that the threat to the world from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was both great and immediate.
On February 4, 2003, he said Saddam Hussein had an ''arsenal'' and a ''stockpile'' and the ''illegal importation of proscribed goods ha[s] increased dramatically in the past few years". ''Iraq had a massive program for developing offensive biological weapons - one of the largest and most advanced in the world.''
On March 18, 2003, foreign minister Alexander Downer told the House of Representatives: ''The strategy of containment [UN sanctions] simply has not worked and now poses an unacceptable risk.''
In his speeches at the time, Howard said: ''Iraq has a usable chemical and biological weapons capability which has included recent production of chemical and biological agents; Iraq continues to work on developing nuclear weapons. All key aspects - research and development, production and weaponisation - of Iraq's offensive biological weapons program are active and most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War in 1991.''
None of the government's arguments were supported by the intelligence presented to it by its own agencies. None of these arguments were true.
Howard this week quoted the findings of the parliamentary inquiry, but his quotation is selective to the point of being misleading.
What was the nature of the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction provided to the government? The parliamentary inquiry reported on the intelligence in detail. It gathered information from the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessment. It said:
1. The scale of threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was less than it had been a decade earlier.
2. Under sanctions that prevailed at the time, Iraq's military capability remained limited and the country's infrastructure was still in decline.
3. The nuclear program was unlikely to be far advanced. Iraq was unlikely to have obtained fissile material.
4. Iraq had no ballistic missiles that could reach the US. Most if not all of the few SCUDS that were hidden away were likely to be in poor condition.
5. There was no known chemical weapons production.
6. There was no specific evidence of resumed biological weapons production.
7. There was no known biological weapons testing or evaluation since 1991.
8. There was no known Iraq offensive research since 1991.
9. Iraq did not have nuclear weapons.
10. There was no evidence that chemical weapon warheads for Al Samoud or other ballistic missiles had been developed.
11. No intelligence had accurately pointed to the location of weapans of mass destruction.
There were minor qualifications to this somewhat emphatic picture.
It found there was a limited stockpile of chemical weapon agents, possibly stored in dual-use or industrial facilities. Although there was no evidence that it had done so, Iraq had the capacity to restart its chemical weapons program in weeks and to manufacture in months.
The committee concluded the ''case made by the government was that Iraq possessed WMD in large quantities and posed a grave and unacceptable threat to the region and the world, particularly as there was a danger that Iraq's WMD might be passed to terrorist organisations.
''This is not the picture that emerges from an examination of all the assessments provided to the committee by Australia's two analytical agencies.''
Howard would claim, no doubt, that he took his views from overseas dossiers. But all that intelligence was considered by Australian agencies when forming their views.
They knew, too, of the disputes and arguments within British and US agencies. Moreover, Australian agencies as well as the British and US intelligence agencies also knew the so-called ''surge of new intelligence'' after September 2002 relied almost exclusively on one or two unreliable and self-serving individuals.
They knew that Saddam 's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel Hassan al-Majid, who had defected in 1995, had told Western agencies the nuclear program in Iraq had failed, chemical and biological programs had been dismantled and weapons destroyed.
There are none so blind as those who will not see.
Margaret Swieringa is a retired public servant.