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Transcript 22620

White Powder Incident

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 07/12/2006

Release Type: Media Release

Transcript ID: 22620

An article by Matthew Moore in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers today accuses the Foreign Minister and me of "distorting test results" during a white powder incident last year at the Indonesian Embassy.

The article suggests that the Foreign Minister and I added the term "biological agent" to the description of the substance received at the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra on 1 June 2005. The article also alleges that the public was never informed of the true nature of the substance.

Mr Moore ignored additional information provided by the office of the Justice Minister to justify his erroneous claims. The article is wrong in a number of ways.

Firstly, advice that the white powder posted to the Indonesian Embassy was a "biological agent" was included in an incident report prepared by the Australian Government's Protective Security Coordination Centre at 2.13pm on 1 June.

The PSCC advice said:

"Initial analysis of the powder has tested positive as a biological agent, though further testing will need to be carried out to determine what that substance is."

The Foreign Minister provided a statement to the House of Representatives approximately an hour later. He quoted directly from that report and also advised that further testing would be required to determine the exact nature of the substance. He also said there was a possibility the Indonesian Embassy would be shut down for quite a period of time and the 22 staff would remain in isolation. The PSCC's next incident report, at 3.40pm, included the same words.

In media interviews later that day, when answering questions about the white powder incident, I was also quoting from the advice provided by the PSCC.

Advice at 6.24am the following day said testing by health authorities in the ACT revealed that the substance was gram positive Bacillus bacteria, which has a number of different forms. While one form, anthrax, can be lethal, others are naturally present and harmless.

The article alleges that this advice was not provided to the public. This is quite simply wrong. In Question Time that day (2 June), I advised that analysis of the substance indicated that in "all probability it was not toxic". The Chief Police Officer of the ACT and the Chief Minister of the ACT also made this clear in a press conference on 2 June. The AFP statement advised that testing "has shown that the substance is not anthrax...However it must be stressed these finding are interim and analysis is continuing."

Prior to publication of his erroneous article, Mr Moore was advised there were other documents that did indicate the material was biological" but he chose not to pursue them or include any reference to them in his article. His conclusion that the government exaggerated the threat is outrageous and factually incorrect.

Transcript 22620