Friday, March 17, 2006

Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye

The Howard government did not, repeat, did not bribe Saddam Hussein with hundreds of millions of dollars in contravention of the UN Oil-for-Food sanctions. Nor, it appears, did it consciously, repeat, consciously facilitate illicit payments to Saddam by the Australian Wheat Board.

But it does look like it lied about the documents it said it had provided, and it may have well stuck needles in its eyes. John Cleese could not have done a better job of ignoring an elephant alone in a lift with him than the woeful (didn't say wilful) job the government did it supervising the sanctity of exports to Iraq. It really begins to sound something truly out of a Monty Python sketch. (Does not. Does too.)

Smoking gun drama for PM
By Marian Wilkinson and David Marr
SMH March 17, 2006

AUSTRALIA'S intelligence services told the Federal Government five years ago that Saddam Hussein's regime was charging kickbacks on all humanitarian contracts at the time AWB was the largest supplier of humanitarian goods to Iraq.

Explosive documents released yesterday by the Cole oil-for-food inquiry also show the Government was told as early as 1998 that a Jordanian company part-owned by Iraq was being used as a conduit for payments to Iraq in breach of UN sanctions. The company, Alia, was used by the monopoly wheat exporter AWB to funnel almost $300 million in bribes to Iraq.

Fifteen intelligence reports on the corruption in the UN's oil-for-food program were earlier suppressed by the Cole inquiry at the request of the Government on national security grounds. The released summaries of these reports will put the Prime Minister, John Howard, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, and the former defence minister Robert Hill under renewed pressure over the scandal.
[Ironically, the reports were produced at the insistence of the AWB legal team, who voiced bitter recriminations that it was being denied pertinent information under veils of secrecy. This is the same team that shrouded so much of the AWB story behind a veil of legal privilege. Priceless.]

The damning material was supplied by foreign intelligence services between 1998 and 2004 and then distributed throughout the bureaucracy. According to a sworn statement to the Cole inquiry, it was passed to "departments, other agencies and certain ministerial offices in accordance with normal agency practice and as shown on each document distribution list".

Despite these reports, the Government did not order its own agencies to collect intelligence on AWB and other Australian companies dealing with Iraq under the oil-for-food program. Nor did the reports provoke the Foreign Affairs and Trade Department to take steps to ensure there was no breach of UN sanctions.

Last night the Opposition foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, said the new evidence showed Mr Howard was a "liar".

Mr Howard had said on February 12 that all documents had been provided to the enquiry, Mr Rudd said. But subpoenas were issued five days later to extract this information from the intelligence community. "We now have some idea why the Prime Minister was so reluctant to provide it."

Mr Downer has repeated his claim that the intelligence had not raised any concerns about AWB. "There wasn't any Australian intelligence reporting and there wasn't any intelligence reporting from our foreign partners … that specifically mentioned AWB."

However, the reports set out in precise detail the system of kickbacks now known to have been used by AWB. Alia was identified as early as 1998 as "part owned by the Iraqi government and … involved in circumventing UN sanctions on behalf of the Iraqi government".

One summary says: "By March 2001 the AIC [Australian intelligence community] held intelligence of endeavours by Iraq to breach sanctions by, amongst other methods, collecting commission on contracts for humanitarian goods imported into Iraq under the [oil-for-food program]." Several reports say this system was "rigidly enforced" by Iraq.

However, one intelligence report of November 2003 said: "Not all large companies had agreed to pay the Iraqi-imposed surcharges, and cited as an example wheat imports from Australia."

But by this time the United States Defence Audit Agency had named AWB as inflating their contracts with the 10 per cent kickback.

Foreign Affairs witnesses have told the Cole inquiry that they had not seen any of the 15 intelligence reports and were familiar with little of their substance.

A spokesman for Mr Downer's office last night said the new evidence does not link Alia to AWB.


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