Intelligence officer turned whistleblower and politician Andrew Wilkie is calling for Australia to conduct its own version of the Chilcot inquiry into the war in Iraq. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Andrew Wilkie and the Chilcot inquiry

Andrew Wilkie speaks in response to the Chilcot report in Melbourne, this week.
Andrew Wilkie speaks in response to the Chilcot report in Melbourne, this week.

It was 2002 and Andrew Wilkie knew war was coming. But in his secured office, as he studied satellite images and the field reports of spies, he grew doubtful about its legitimacy. A former Australian soldier, Wilkie was an intelligence analyst with the Office of National Assessments, and he had become concerned about what seemed to be an irreconcilable gap between the intelligence on Iraq – which offered very little evidence of a threat – and the bellicosity of the political pronouncements about the danger of Saddam Hussein. 

In Britain, The Sun carried the headline “Brits 45 minutes from doom”, referring to Tony Blair’s assertion that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction could be deployed with devastating efficiency. The next month, United States president George W. Bush said: “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Meanwhile, The Australian’s Greg Sheridan wrote: “As we approach war with Iraq, it’s becoming obvious that George W. Bush is really a modern Winston Churchill.” 

Late that year, Wilkie decided to betray his government. The more intelligence he saw, the more he realised that the strategic, legal and moral basis for invading Iraq was dubious. A pivotal moment was his preparation of a report on the possible humanitarian consequences of an invasion. This was positioned against humanitarian – and strategic – advantages. 

Hussein was, by any measure, a capricious and murderous thug who had committed genocide against the Kurds in northern Iraq. But to Wilkie, the calculus seemed clear: the consequences would grimly eclipse any benefit. The whole venture appeared doomed. And yet Wilkie felt none of this was slowing the path to war. 

For months, Wilkie was duplicitous. He received classified briefs, attended meetings, had colleagues round for dinner – knowing that he would soon resign and take his misgivings to the media. He was nervous, and worried that his changes in mood would invite suspicion. There were random searches on ONA staff, and the duplicity pained him. He feared discovery. But Wilkie had arrived at his own calculus. It was more important to blow the whistle. “I was fully expecting detention,” he told me this week, “so I got all my affairs in order.” 

One evening he drove to Laurie Oakes’s house and dropped his business card, stapled to a note to call him, in the renowned journalist’s letterbox. There was no going back. 

1 . Saddam Hussein fixation

Eighteen months before Wilkie blew the whistle, George W. Bush was taking a month’s vacation on his vast Texas ranch. It was August 2001, and Bush had been president for just six months. He enjoyed a leisurely daily ritual: rise at 5.45, brew coffee, and let the dogs out. Then a four-kilometre run before breakfast, after which he’d shower, dress and make phone calls to the White House from 9am. For much of the day he’d take a chainsaw to overgrown brush, go fly-fishing and enjoy long lunches with friends. Among those activities, Bush received the CIA’s daily briefing. The sum of those briefings for Bush’s presidency included 44 mentions of al-Qaeda, but his administration showed scant interest. Bush’s influential deputy secretary of state, Paul Wolfowitz, once cut off the National Security Council’s head of counterterrorism, saying: “I don’t understand why we are talking about this one man bin Laden. You give him too much credit.”

Wolfowitz was fixed on Hussein. In fact, most of Bush’s advisers were fixated on Iraq and had been, publicly, for years. In 1997, Wolfowitz established the think tank Project for the New American Century, which included Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, men who just a few years later would become Bush’s secretary of defence and vice-president. They wrote an open letter to then president Bill Clinton calling for regime change. At that time, across the Atlantic Ocean, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, was comfortable with a longstanding policy of containment, which was considered successful. Hussein was vile, but international sanctions had crippled him. The CIA agreed. 

This was before September 11, 2001. Called before the Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, Blair said that following September 11, “our view, the American view, changed and changed dramatically … We had a different calculus of risk.”

The Australian prime minister, John Howard, was in Washington, DC, on September 11, having celebrated his countryman Lleyton Hewitt’s triumph at the US Open the evening before. Now, from his hotel room window, he watched black columns of smoke rise from the Pentagon. “I remember the morning in Washington,” Howard said in the house of representatives a week later. “I had been for an early morning walk. It was a beautiful Washington morning – there was just a touch of autumn. I had walked past the Lincoln Memorial and many of the other great memorials of that great nation which stood between us and tyranny on one critical occasion in our history.”

Andrew Wilkie said it personalised the event for Howard, and “supercharged the special relationship between Australia and the United States”. 

So it came to be that on inadequate intelligence, the Australian and British governments deferred to the Manichean crusaders of Bush’s administration. The Chilcot report emphasises the dynamics of this, saying that the British government had “concern that vital areas of co-operation between the UK and the US could be damaged if the UK did not give the US its full support over Iraq”. Even if, as the report reminds us, there have been historical differences between the two countries on major issues: Vietnam, Suez, the Falklands and Bosnia. The similarities and mutual interest of the countries could bear the weight of past disagreement. 

Howard spoke of his commitment to the US in a 2013 speech. “There were many who argued that we should stay out; we should say ‘no’ to the Americans for a change; that the true measure of a good friend was a willingness to disagree when the circumstances called for it, and that in the case of Iraq we would hurt our country by backing the United States, and that in the long run declining to participate in the coalition of the willing would be good for the alliance. That argument escaped me then, and it still does. In my view the circumstances we recall tonight necessitated a 100 per cent ally, not a 70 or 80 per cent one, particularly as no compelling national interest beckoned us in the opposite direction.”

2 . The birth of Daesh

Thirteen years later, the Iraq war has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and created a hellish security vacuum that would ultimately birth Daesh. The Chilcot report tells us it has aggravated the risk of terrorism, not diminished it, and the war’s prelude was defined by “intelligence and assessments [that] were used to prepare material to be used to support government statements in a way that conveyed certainty without acknowledging the limitations of the intelligence”. It also confirms the pivotal argument for invading – that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was sponsoring international terrorism – had no basis in fact. 

The enormous report also found the war occurred before diplomatic options were exhausted; the process of determining the war’s legality was “perfunctory”; Bush calamitously disregarded Britain’s advice on the post-invasion phase, what little strategy there was; Blair ignored warnings that Iraq would disintegrate into civil war and; the British government did not adequately record civilian deaths.

John Howard counselled both Blair and Bush about the invasion, and the former US president would anoint Howard a “man of steel” for his unflinching support. In the wake of the Chilcot report, Howard gave a lengthy press conference defending his decision. “In the years gone past there is this constant claim that we went to war on a lie,” Howard said. “There was no lie. There was errors in intelligence, but no lie … I believe the decision was justified at the time … I thought it was the right decision.” 

Andrew Wilkie, now the federal independent member for Denison in Hobart, tells me: “The whole thing was fundamentally flawed. And Howard’s argument about ambiguity is flawed – if you’re going to war and unleashing a deadly chain of events, a reasonable person would say that you’d have to have a watertight case. To simply say, ‘Because of the uncertainty we assume the worst’, is not a basis for launching war against a sovereign country. Blair has expressed some degree of regret. We haven’t seen that from Howard. Human nature is such that they will defend their legacies. But they’re in tatters.”

Wilkie is calling for Australia’s own version of a Chilcot inquiry – a commission given investigative powers and the ability to compel witnesses. He says Australia’s previous two inquiries were woefully inadequate. “The ONA did secret assessments on the US and UK,” Wilkie tells me, “about what the real reasons for war were. Now, these assessments have never been looked at by any inquiry. But we have these assessments about internal decision-making in the UK and US. I saw some of these – they were informal recollections from the corridors of power. This was raw, unsanitised stuff. Not prettied up. I read one classified email and I thought, ‘This war is bullshit, it has nothing to do with WMDs.’ ” 

Wilkie is far from alone in calling for an inquiry. This week, the conservative commentator Tom Switzer called for something similar. He described the war as “illegal, unnecessary, unpopular, foolish and ultimately disastrous”. 

For leaking against the government, Andrew Wilkie received death threats and lost friends. “I’d do it all again,” he tells me. “Even if I hadn’t won the argument, I’d do it again. The decision I made at the time was correct.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 16, 2016 as "Up in arms".

During the final week of the election campaign we are unlocking all of our journalism. A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.