'Backroom 'boy' turns anti-war hero


  • Letters
  • Sunday, 16 Mar 2003

By JEFFREY FRANCIS

BEFORE he dropped the bombshell last week, Andrew Wilkie was one of those “backroom boys” who are seldom seen in public, much less heard of. 

Their role is of vital importance to Australia; their views, which could sway the government one way or the other, are only for the ears of the Prime Minister. 

If any of them broke this rule and made public what he believes about a certain circumstance or event, he must face the consequence. And that is the end of his career. 

“It’s the biggest decision I think I’ve ever made in my life,” Wilkie admits. “Frankly, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring for me.” 

Until last Tuesday, Wilkie was a senior strategic analyst in the Office of National Assessment (ONA) in Canberra. He resigned on the spot in protest against John Howard’s firm stance to go to war on Iraq possibly within the next two weeks. 

A brilliant former lieutenant-colonel who graduated from the elite Duntroon Military College, he was seconded four years ago to ONA, which daily receives intelligence from around the world, including the US, to be analysed and acted on in the interest and security of the nation. 

According to Wilkie, for the past 15 months he had been working specifically on global terrorism and transnational issues involving Afghanistan and Iraq. He was disturbed during his research when he realised the sort of humanitarian disaster that would take place in a war against Iraq. 

Such a war would be short and successful, he believes. But the range of activities that President Saddam Hussein would take to cause humanitarian disaster would result in an international outcry. 

He has no doubt about this because Saddam is on record as saying during the Iran-Iraq war that if he thought he was losing the war he would leave nothing of value for the invading army. 

This has made Wilkie uneasy for weeks. Talks on the reasons for launching the pre-emptive strike on Iraq with or without United Nations backing have annoyed him to a great extent. 

For example, he has found no hard evidence from a substantial flow of American intelligence at ONA of any link or active cooperation between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network despite the claim of US Secretary of State Colin Powell to the UN Security Council some weeks ago. 

In fact, Wilkie believes there are many reasons why there would not be any link – unless, of course, the possible invasion of Iraq pushes Saddam into establishing a relationship with al-Qaeda. 

“War must obviously be justified, and it must obviously be the option of last resort,” explains the former military strategist.  

“I’m not satisfied that in this case it is either justified or it has been viewed as the option of last resort.” 

Understandably, the public is now more confused about the issue than they ever were. How could the same set of significant intelligence lead to two radically different conclusions on Iraq? Who are they to believe? 

Suddenly and unwittingly, Wilkie has become the anti-war hero who has sacrificed his career in an attempt to make the Howard government rethink its position and take a more sensible approach to developing its policy on Iraq. 

But Howard is adamant that the course he has taken is in the interest of Australia. If Iraq is not disarmed, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction would spread to other rogue states and eventually fall into the hands of terrorists. Iraq has to disarm to avoid a war with the American-led coalition of the willing. 

Wilkie points out, however, he is not saying the government should “walk away” from the problem of disarmament, but it must explore all options before resorting to war. 

The UN could, for example, ensure the improvement of inspections, which have not been really satisfactory. It could provide more resources and more inspectors, who should be given more time to check for any hidden chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. 

Whatever Wilkie’s motives, his action to put his views in the public arena is, apparently, based not only on his integrity and strong conviction but also on the principles and morality that he upholds conscientiously. 

He has been described by a former ONA colleague as a man who does not take lightly the decision he has made.  

“To my mind, he is a hard-working, competent and trustworthy person,” says David Wright-Neville, who is now with Monash University in Melbourne. 

On the other hand, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer argues that Wilkie has only produced one piece of paper on Iraq, which is not a military or security assessment but a humanitarian assessment. 

Wilkie rejects this claim saying that just before he resigned on Tuesday he had discussed the Iraq issue with Howard’s senior intelligence adviser. 

He claims he had access to most, if not all, of the classified intelligence on Iraq. His boss Kim Jones, who tried to downplay the row, claims that Wilkie was working mostly on illegal immigration and was not responsible for ONA’s coverage of Iraq. 

“In fairness to me,” counters Wilkie, “I’ve been involved in (matters concerning) Iraq in many ways over the recent months. I have been particularly interested in Iraq because I’ve been on standby to the assessment team for the war.” 

As far as Wilkie is concerned, there is no hard evidence that Iraq poses an imminent threat to Australia. Nor has there been any link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. 

After his televised address to the nation on Thursday, Howard was questioned whether he could produce evidence of a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. 

He replied that he couldn’t prove his claim beyond any reasonable doubt as required in a court of law. But if the world waits for such proof, then it would be too late. It would be like the Pearl Harbour situation (of World War II). 

Howard stressed that al-Qaeda, “the most lethal of the international terrorist organisations,” wanted to get its hands on weapons of mass destruction. 

“In fact, it is doing its own work in relation to these weapons,” he added. “That, to me, is pretty compelling.” 

Pressed further why he had not included in his address evidence from Australian intelligence agencies of a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, Howard said he believed he had established “quite convincingly” that terrorist groups wanted weapons of mass destruction. 

“As far as Mr Wilkie is concerned, I respect his right to have another view,” he said. “In the end, all of these things involve questions of judgment. We’re not talking about proving beyond reasonable doubt. 

“You’ve got to make judgments and I’ve given you our judgments. 

“If international terrorism gets its hands on chemical and biological weapons, that is an awful and lethal menace to all the liberal democracies of the world and Australia is no exception,” he stresses. “And that is why I feel strongly about this issue.” 

Jeffrey Francis is editorial consultant, Australasia-Pacific Media (e-mail: francis1@nw.com.au ) 

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