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Transcript 20648

Interview with Liam Bartlett, ABC Radio, Perth

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: 20/06/2003

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 20648

BARTLETT:

Prime Minister good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Liam.

BARTLETT:

How are you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm very well. I'm looking forward to the big parade here later on this morning and it's an opportunity for the people of Perth to say thank you and to welcome the troops home. We had a great parade in Sydney on Wednesday and I'm sure the one in Perth will be the equal of that if not better.

BARTLETT:

Yeah, we were just saying the weather's certainly turned out....

PRIME MINISTER:

The weather is great and if the Sydney experience is anything to go by the people will be very enthusiastic. And I found talking to the men and women after the parade that they were genuinely taken aback with the enthusiasm of people and they really did appreciate the gesture and I think it is important when people have done something, whatever your views might be about involvement in military operations, the men and women go there as part of their duty and they do like to feel appreciated. We made the mistake as a nation 30 or more years ago in the way we treated many people who came home from Vietnam, that probably had a bad effect on them. And I was determined when this operation started that when it was over we'd give a decent welcome home to the people so they felt that their efforts were appreciated irrespective of what the debate may have been about the wisdom of them going. I mean not that I was in any doubt about that but I respect the fact that not everybody agreed with me.

BARTLETT:

Yep, no, that's for sure. Regardless of your personal ideological position that's their job isn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is their job and I said when they went that I hoped if anybody had a beef about it they'd take it out on me and not on the troops. And that has happened and I'm very grateful for that and today's an opportunity for people collectively to say thank you to them.

BARTLETT:

Can we run through some other topics....

PRIME MINISTER:

Sure.

BARTLETT:

.....and obviously a topic pretty close to the Iraqi situation that's been on the news for the past couple of days, as you well know the intelligence situation with the Bali bombings and that sort of thing and ASIO conceding that it failed in the Bali bombing scenario, the Director General saying that the agency did not have the intelligence available before the October 12 attack, you know the necessary intelligence to prevent it. I noticed today Federal Opposition Leader Simon Crean saying that it's not up to scratch. That's his conclusion as a result of that. What do you take away from it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think what Mr Crean has said is very silly because what Dennis Richardson, the head of ASIO, I think very frankly and very courageously said was to state the obvious that whenever there's a terrorist attack by definition there's been an intelligence failure and that applies to any terrorist attack anywhere in the world. But I believe the agency should only be criticised if there was clear evidence that they had material that they should have analysed in a particular way or passed onto the government and there's no evidence of that. There's nothing in Dennis Richardson's evidence last night which suggests for a moment that they had warning of the attack in Bali. The important thing is you have to....to mount a criticism of an intelligence agency, a big criticism, you've got to have a situation where they have material that should have told them that there was going to be an attack in a particular place or strong likelihood at a particular time. Now at no stage was that the case and nothing Dennis said last night alters that fact. But he rather manfully, if I can use an old fashioned expression because I think everybody still understands and that's why they should be used, he rather manfully said well look I have to accept that whenever a terrorist attack occurs by definition there's some kind of intelligence failure. But that is really saying that I'm prepared to be judged by a standard that nobody else is willing to be judged by and that is the standard of never making a mistake, a standard of absolute perfection. None of us can be judged by that.

BARTLETT:

So he was talking less about the specific attack wasn't he, and more about the broader aspect of not being able to identify....

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yes, he was making some observations about the thought processes of intelligence communities generally about the threat posed by Jemaah Islamiah.

BARTLETT:

Yeah, but not being able to pick them up as a terrorist organisation.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well yeah I understand that and I think all of that is interesting and it's important and it's to a degree relevant, but it doesn't go to the core issue - was the intelligence service in any way guilty of negligence? My view is it wasn't because there was nothing that constituted hard indication that there was going to be an attack. You're talking here conceptually of the evolving role of particular organisations.

BARTLETT:

But what about, sorry Prime Minister, not negligence, not that bad. But come back a bit, what about competence?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they're essentially the same thing. I mean Mr Crean says they're not up to scratch. Well I reject that. I think that is an opportunistic, unfair, ungracious attack on our intelligence agency. He's taking advantage of the remarkable, the objective candour of Dennis Richardson. If he has said that and I hope he hasn't, but he's apparently reported as having said that, I think that is a cheap shot. I mean you've got to avoid opportunism on something like this. The Bali attack was a terrible tragedy. If any Australian of any position of responsibility have had advance warning of it they'd have moved heaven and earth to stop it. Everybody knows that. What Dennis was honestly saying was that by definition whenever you have a terrorist attack you can regard it as an intelligence failure. Now that doesn't mean to say that they're guilty of being incompetent, that they're guilty of negligence. There's no evidence that they had hard evidence. I mean what he's really saying is I'm prepared to be judged by a standard of 100% perfection. Well I'm afraid none of us ever aspire to that. I don't, you don't, Simon Crean doesn't and I don't think anybody else does either.

BARTLETT:

The ongoing debate about the weapons of mass destruction....

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah well I thought Mr Crean was very interesting here in Perth this morning on another program. He said that of course Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, of course they were a threat, and of course he used them. Well if that is his acknowledgment, and of course he's quite right in saying that, all of those statements are true, what on earth are we having all these inquiries about? I mean what's he going on about? I mean are these inquiries just as I suspect fishing expeditions, to see if something might turn up in the hope that it will embarrass the Government. But there can be no argument that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. People argued about how other countries should respond and the debate about it was whether we should wait for the 18th resolution of the Security Council. That's what the debate was really all about and that was the real difference at the time between, as I understand it, the Labor Party and the Government. Now we've moved on and because there are inquiries in other countries and people are asking questions...

BARTLETT:

Mostly because they just haven't turned up.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it's too early to make a judgement about that. It could well be, of course, that they have been very effectively hidden. Some of them may have been destroyed. We don't know. What people have got to remember with intelligence - and this applies whether it's our intelligence services or the American or the British - you can never prove something with intelligence, you have to make judgements. If you wait for absolute proof it will be too late, you face a Pearl Harbour situation. Intelligence gives you suggestions....you build an intelligence picture based on a whole lot of intercepts, human intelligence, judgements about how people are going to behave and out of all of that you make a judgement. Now, that was the sort of material that came to us and out of all the advice that came to us we formed...the intelligence agencies formed the judgement that Iraq still had a biological, chemical weapons capacity - I think the nuclear one a bit further down but certainly the chemical and biological. That was their judgement and there's no doubt that that was the belief of the United Nations because they kept passing resolutions telling Iraq to allow the inspectors to go in. Now, in the end the real debate between the Americans and the British and us, if I can put it in those terms, and the others was whether you would wait endlessly for further inspections. We thought we'd waited long enough. We felt there was plenty of legal authority to go in. There was no guarantee that if you waited another year that the inspectors were going to get any more effective access but there was never any real debate about the possession of the weapons or the capacity to produce those weapons. There was no real debate about that. Everybody, I mean, Richard Butler whose politics are certainly not mine, he was the former head of the inspection group, he was very strongly of that view.

BARTLETT:

Well, he was but to remind you, we talked to him on the programme just the other day, two days ago, and he did keep coming back to the point that you made, specifically the word you used at the time about mammoth and....

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes but you're dealing here, Liam, with...a small amount of a deadly nerve agent can cause massive, indeed, mammoth damage. If the only charge against me is that I used the word mammoth then that's not a very substantial charge. The fundamental question, though, is whether there was proper, reasonable intelligence assessments available to us at the time to justify what we did.

BARTLETT:

Yes, justify the message that you relayed to the Australian people.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the message I relayed to the Australian people was, firstly, that we believed Iraq did have these weapons, that if Iraq was not disarmed other rogue States will do the same, the more rogue States who had them, they then ran a greater risk of falling into the hands of terrorists. Now, that was my message. My message was translated in my language. Mr Blair and Mr Bush translated their messages in a different language.

BARTLETT:

Let me just ask you this, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Sure.

BARTLETT:

In an e-mail I got in the last 20 minutes of the programme, in fact, not long after we announced that you were coming in it says: Dear Liam, as a Vietnam veteran nothing makes me angrier than seeing the Prime Minister trying to use the Defence Forces for political gain by hogging the limelight at the parades we have seen in the various capital cities this week. It's a different matter if your husband has been killed, like Kylie Russell, or you have been wounded like the disabled veterans who protested in Canberra this week, then he is nowhere to be seen, what a hypocrite. Yours sincerely, Sam.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't think that's a valid criticism. I'm the person who was responsible for them going and if the outcome had been very different people would not have been reluctant in anyway to criticise me and I'd have accepted responsibility for it. I don't think it's unreasonable that I welcome people home. He says I hog the limelight. Well, I'm the Prime Minister, I'm the person who's to blame, I'm the person responsible. If I didn't turn up...just imagine if I didn't turn up at the parade and I said nothing - people would say, for heaven's above, he's the bloke who sent us, he hasn't even come along to welcome us back. I mean, really, this is, with great respect to Sam, it's a bit cheap. I did actually mention Kylie Russell's late husband, Andrew, in my speech on the steps of Sydney Town Hall, I mentioned him by name. I haven't forgotten him, I haven't forgotten her.

BARTLETT:

What about the TPIs?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we are examining the Clark recommendations in relation to that and you will hear further.

BARTLETT:

They need help, don't they, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, well, a lot of people need help, a lot of people do need help. There's a lot of people in the Australian community who need help and I have to say in defence of the Government that the judgement of the Clark report is that the current levels of assistance given are fair and reasonable given community standards. I mean, they are not unreasonable.

BARTLETT:

Thank you very much for coming in.

PRIME MINISTER:

Okay, thanks a lot.

[ends]

Transcript 20648