AFTER admitting that it has misled the Australian Parliament, the Howard government is now faced with what must be an integrity crisis.
If it wants the public to believe that it has been telling the truth about when it knew of the alleged prison abuses by some US soldiers in Iraq, it seems logical that Major George O’Kane of the Australian Army, who has received the Red Cross document of concerns, be allowed to appear before the Senate committee for questioning.
Questions such as when did he hand over the document to the Australian Defence Department, to whom did he give it, and what reaction or response he has received after that, are left unanswered.
Also left in the air are questions on what the government, as a partner in the coalition of the willing in Iraq, could or should have done in an attempt to stop the abuses, although Australian troops are not involved in it.
This could, perhaps, remove any doubt clouding the government claims that it did not know anything about the alleged abuses until the photographs of the abuses were made public in April.
But the government has steadfastly refused to allow Major O’Kane, who visited the Abu Ghraib prison five times between August last year and January this year, to appear before the Senate committee.
Ostensibly, as it appears, he is regarded as a relatively junior officer and should not be subjected to a Senate interrogation.
Major O’Kane, who is now back in Canberra, is certainly a senior army officer. His rank alone puts him in that category.
Not only that, he is a military legal officer. He is one of seven military lawyers who visited the Iraqi prison. He also provided legal advice to the senior officers of the US unit that was involved in the abuses.
As such, there can be no doubt that Major O’Kane is capable of looking after himself and knows how to deal with the rigours of the Senate cross-examinations.
If the government was not aware of the horrendous tortures suffered by Iraqi prisoners four months before the news hit the world headlines, the Defence Department should have been aware of the allegations.
Major O’Kane wrote a situation report on Dec 4, 2003, to his superior officer about the Red Cross concerns over the gross abuses.
But the Defence Department claims that the working papers “actually surfaced only on May 11”.
There appears to be some contradictions on the date when the government and the Defence Department became aware of the alleged tortures.
So, why has the government refused to make Major O’Kane available for the Senate questioning?
This has been the centre of the row in the Senate between Labour Opposition and the Government Senators for the past two weeks.
No wonder Opposition Senate Leader John Faulkner describes the refusal as a “cover-up” – a claim that Prime Minister John Howard vehemently denies.
Howard, on the eve of his visit to Washington last week for talks, which include the Iraqi situation, with US President George W. Bush, maintains that the first time he and his ministers became aware of the “seriousness” of the torture allegations was in April when photographs were published in newspapers.
Foreign Affairs officer John Quinn admits that Australian Col Paul Muggleton met Iraq’s then human rights minister Abdel Bassan Turki, who raised his concerns about the denial of the prisoners’ human rights.
The conversation was recorded in the weekly situation report Col Muggleton sent back to Australia.
This report was then passed on to the Foreign Affairs Department, Defence Department and the Federal Attorney-General’s Office.
Quinn believes that because the US authorities were investigating the allegations, the Australian authorities did not explore the matter further.
In fact, none of the three departments took any action on the situation report, which contains Turki’s general claims of abuses.
But the admission of its existence and distribution to the departments has, in itself, discredited the Howard government’s claim that no Australian was aware of the prison abuses before April this year.
Hence, the government has suffered significant political damage.
In the end, Howard was forced to admit that he had misled Parliament by “faulty advice” from the Defence Department.
And he has ordered Defence Minister Senator Robert Hill to carry out an inquiry and provide a full explanation to the Senate.
Jeffrey Francis is editorial consultant, Australasia-Pacific Media (e-mail: email@example.com)
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