Truth in Public Life
I think we all believe that we understand the concept of truth and lies. The truth is something that is factually correct, while a lie is something that is false and deliberately so. But when it comes to politicians the concept becomes less clear. I am sure that you all have your own examples of this and I would like to share with you some of my experiences. Throughout my career as a senior intelligence officer and then as a weapons inspector in Iraq I have a few stories about my involvement with politicians and senior public servants, that show that the concept of honesty is not quite as clear cut as most of us imagine.
First of all though I want to make it clear that this is not a “holier than thou” talk. It is part of human nature to lie. We all do it to varying degrees. When we go to a dinner party and the hostess asks us “I hope the lamb wasn’t over cooked?” our response (or at least mine!) is usually no, it was delicious, even if it wasn’t. Or if your spouse asks “do like my haircut?” … We tell these little lies for social reasons. We often do it because it says that my friendship is more important than the absolute truth.
When it comes to public life though we expect a different standard. This should be the case particularly for our politicians: they are the ones who set the policies and laws that govern our society. My view is that generally speaking, our present politicians avoid telling outright lies. But that does not necessarily mean that they are honest.
Some politicians are of course honest. Take for example the recent revelation of an alleged promise by Mr Howard that he would serve just one and half terms before handing over to Mr Costello. Mr Howard’s and Mr Costello’s versions of this are diametrically opposite. Putting a positive spin on this, one of them seemed to be telling the truth. So we have one truthful politician – we just do not know which one.
But to explain what I mean by the political interpretation of honesty, let me tell you of some of my experiences and observations. After the war in Iraq in 2003, I was recruited by the CIA as an advisor in the futile hunt for the missing Weapons of Mass Destruction. I returned to Australia from that in March 2004 and briefed senior government officials about my experiences. In particular I had reported my concerns about American abuse of prisoners at a jail, called Camp Cropper that I had visited on a couple of occasions. I was therefore dismayed when Senator Robert Hill, our then Defence Minister, told Parliament on 16 June 2004:
“Mr President, Defence has thoroughly reviewed the information available to it and has confirmed the key facts in this issue. Australia did not interrogate prisoners. Australia was not involved in guarding prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison or any other Iraqi prison.”He went on:
“It was only with the release of the horrific photos in late April of this year that I became aware that abuses had occurred and the extent of those abuses.” [Hansard 16 June 2004]When I heard this, I complained to Hill’s senior advisor that what Hill had said was not true. I reminded him that I had informed Defence of my suspicions of prisoner abuse. The response was that Senator Hill was referring to Abu Ghraib not Camp Cropper.
I also pointed out that I interrogated an Iraqi prisoner. No, was the response, according to Senator Hill I only interviewed a prisoner. This was in spite of the fact that the prisoner was brought to me by an armed guard and had no choice in the matter. So by selecting narrow definitions of words, our politicians avoid out-right lies. It reminds me a bit of President Clinton’s denial that he did not have sex with that woman.
And so in Senator Hill’s own eyes, he had not lied to parliament. I write in my book, The Weapons Detective, that I learnt very early in my intelligence career that “statements can be made that are true and at the same time be entirely misleading”. In my view, Hill had been extremely economical with the truth, and in doing so, deliberately misled Parliament.
There are other ways that politicians test the meaning of truth. I would like to give an example that some of you will have read recently in The Age or have seen on TV. I resigned from my position with the CIA in March 2004 because I believed that the hunt for Iraq’s elusive WMD was not objective, was not honest. By that time we knew there were no weapons in Iraq but the Americans did not want to accept this and we could not report our findings. Not only did I resign, but a colleague, Dr John Gee, also quit for the same reasons.
What happened when we returned to Australia was an interesting exercise in truth by the government. With an election looming later in the year the government did not want to hear the bad news about the hunt for the weapons. My colleague wrote a 7 page letter explaining the problems. Mr Downer received a copy of the letter as did the Prime Minister. But on Downer’s instruction, no one else was to see the letter, not even the Defence Minister. In fact the Defence department refused to accept the letter. [INSERT] That way the Defence Minister was protected and could stand up in Parliament and say that he was not aware of any problem with the objectivity of the hunt for the missing weapons. This is known as plausible deniability, or if you prefer head-in-the-sand: it was like an episode from the TV series “Yes Minister”.
In my view it was dishonest – it was also dishonest when the Prime Minister was asked later about the existence of WMD in Iraq and he replied:
We believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction based on the intelligence and nothing [that] has happened since has altered the fact that we have strong intelligence that built a very powerful substantial case and nothing has altered that. But as to conclusions about what has been found, I’ll wait until I get [the] product of the Iraq Survey Group. [Adelaide doorstop, 7 July 2004]Had he not listened to John Gee and me? As I have just told you, we had already advised the government that the Iraq Survey Group at that time was not honest or objective, and that there were no weapons in Iraq or programs to produce them after 1991. We were the two most senior Australians that had been involved in the hunt for the weapons and had quit over the issue – surely that should have said something to the government.
Perhaps all these examples are really trivial and that most of us expect our politicians to colour the truth. What does it matter? Who really cares whether Mr Howard promised Mr Costello to hand over the reigns of power? And I agree that most of the times it does not really matter. But when politicians take us to war on a lie, it does really matter. There could nothing more serious than a government committing a nation to war so we should expect the truth about the reasons. But we weren’t told the truth when our government took us to war in 2003.
The Government’s defence of this action was that it could only act on the intelligence it received. I know much of what Australian intelligence agencies told the Government. Here are a few quotes:
On chemical weapons the Defence Intelligence Organisation reported in December 2002:
Iraq probably retains a limited stockpile of chemical weapons, possibly stored in dual-use facilities;This was actually a reference to possible old stocks retained from the 1991 Gulf War. And the intelligence report went on to qualify those old weapons by stating:
Due to the difficulties in storage and the possible degradation of some chemical agents, the capacity for Iraq to effectively employ weaponised chemical warfare agents is uncertain;In other words the possibility of a few 12 year old weapons, posed no real threat, not to Australia or the world.
On renewed production, that is the possibility that in the years immediately preceding the war Iraq may have made some new weapons, DIO told the Prime Minister:
Iraq has the capacity to restart chemical weapons production, but we have no evidence that this has occurred; there is no known chemical weapons productionOn biological weapons he was told in December 2002:
There has been no known offensive research and development since 1991, no known biological weapons production since 1991 and no known biological weapons testing or evaluation since 1991.Unfortunately for us, and for the Iraqi people, he did not tell the Australian Parliament this. What he told Parliament and the people of Australia on 2 February 2003 was:
The Australian government knows that Iraq still has chemical and biological weapons [Hansard]Where did that statement come from? Certainly not from Australian intelligence. In early 2003 I was working as a special advisor to Hans Blix and we, the specialist weapons inspectors who were in Iraq at the time of that statement, certainly did not know what Mr Howard was claiming in Parliament. And of course it what not what Mr Howard had been told. I have no other explanation for it, than it was a lie – a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts. The motive presumably was to convince Parliament and the Australian public, that Iraq was a threat and to gain support for joining the Coalition’s invasion of Iraq.
We may forgive, or not care about the spin that politicians put on what they tell us on a day-to-day basis; in fact we almost expect them to do that. Surveys show that politicians are near the bottom of the list of occupations that we trust. But when it comes to the most important matters that affect our lives, and others, we should care. Truth in public life is what we should expect and demand.
nothing particularly new - but the combined speeches are quite devastating.
let me know if you have any particular questions for me when i interview him.