Tim Blair


New Criterion



Sunday, May 30, 2004

Henny Herald, in yesterday's edition, claims to have evidence that contradicts Government and military statements about when they were advised of the abuse of prisoners in Iraqi gaols.

Surely Henny wasn't holding this back on Friday, misleading the punters?

So it's just turned up, but how lucky has Henny been, and how does it change the circumstances as we know them?

PM, you're wrong: letters expose early reports of torture trumpets Henny's headline. The key to the game Henny is playing lies in that word 'early'.

From this chronology of events, printed on page 10, Henny derives the following accusations against the Government and military leadership (not reproduced on its website).

What the PM claims happened...

"A Red Cross [report] in October was critical [only] of conditions - that is food, of clothing, and of communications opportunities with families...

John Howard yesterday

... what really happened

"Punishment included being made to walk in the corridors hundcuffed and naked...

What the International Committee of the Red Cross reported from its prison visits last October.

Note that Henny has added the words 'report' and 'only', which I have highlighted, as if they were obvious and uncontroversial. In fact they change the whole story.

Now note those words in Henny's version - "reported from its prison visits last October".

What Henny is doing is contradicting a statement John Howard made about an ICRC report in October with a report made to the US military authorities in November.

That later report was responded to by the US military authorities on 24 December 2003, followed shortly after, in January 2004, by the beginning of the US authorities' own enquiries that have led, so far, to one conviction and a number of other charges.

What has all of this got to do with the Australian government and military leadership? A liaison officer, Major O'Kane, was involved in responding to the ICRC reports. Henny concedes
It is not known whether Australian Major George O'Kane agreed with the final draft of the letter.

But in its front page 'j'accuse', Henny says bluntly and misleadingly
A letter to the Red Cross drafted by Major O'Kane ... sent December 24.

This implies that he shared responsibility for the policy content of the letter, and, by implication, that he had the authority of his commanders to do so. That is a falsehood.

What are we left with?

The Red Cross reports to the US authorities in Iraq in mid-November, attaching working papers in which some, but not all, of the abuses of Iraqi prisoners are covered.

Over the next month the US authorities prepare a response, sent on December 24th. Henny has "obtained details" of that response, but does not share them with us.

In January photographs (which O'Kane did not see) and other evidence come to light, possibly induced by work done by the US authorities in December. Official enquiries begin, culminating in the scathing report by Major General Taguba and consequent disciplinary action.

In April the photos are published and the media circus begins. The ICRC puts in a report which, they tell us, reports what earlier had been left in working papers. This latest report is "consistent with those made earlier" in 2003. There is so much room to move in what the ICRC is saying about its reporting that it could have been written by Henny's hacks, Marian Wilkinson and Tom Allard.

Is there any evidence beyond innuendo in Henny's story that Howard, Hill or anyone else in the Australian government knew of what was going on before January 2004, when they knew both the accusations and the US action to deal with it? Not a shred.

Unless you place weight on Howard's statement to Parliament yesterday that he 'supposed' O'Kane had been reporting to his superiors. Those superiors and colleagues, or at least three hundred of them, deny hearing anything.

Even the statement by Senator Hill, the Army Minister, that O'Kane "says he knew nothing of the abuse claims before January", which Henny reports as a false statement by Hill, appears to be no more than a statement by o'Kane that, taken out of context, is misleading. As noted in my earlier post, the accuracy of that O'Kane statement depends on what you take to be 'abuse'.

This is heavy-duty spinning by Henny Herald. It would probably take a Royal Commission to sort it out. Considering how this kind of media spinning impacts on our preparedness to take effective action against the sources of Islamist terror, the millions of dollars might be well spent.

Finally, just consider how this impacts on a relatively junior officer sent into dangerous circumstances to represent his country's interests.

He was dropped into the Coalition headquarters in October 2003. Within two months an Australian broadsheet is holding him responsible for drafting the US and Australian policy response to serious charges against some prison guards, although admitting, parenthetically, that it doesn't even know what he thought about that response, and won't tell us what it knows about the content of that response.

The logical outcome of the Henny campaign is that O'Kane must either accept responsibility for exceeding his authority in some ill-defined way, or try to pass the buck upstairs to Canberra.

Who'd want to serve this country if Henny Herald can claim to speak for it?