Paul Watson sometimes irritates me intensely (mostly in his repetitive and silly GenX whinges), but he’s also frequently an incisive observer. Paul’s take on the current furore over whether/when the Howard government knew about allegations of prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, and whether public servants told Ministers about it (and if not why not), is succinct and spot-on:
“Children Overboard – the sequel” this ain’t.
“Children overboard” and (arguably) the failure of various intelligence agencies to advise Ministers about suspect information on Iraq’s WMD capabilities are examples of a disturbing trend in Australian political life. It seems that the Public Service, military and intelligence agencies are now so compromised and politicised that they habitually decline to tell Ministers about things they believe the Minister doesn’t want to know. Howard and Ruddock didn’t want to know that children hadn’t actually been thrown overboard, and public servants knew that very well. The Coalition was running for re-election on a platform consisting in significant part of vilifying asylum seekers, and public servants didn’t need a crystal ball to appreciate that undermining the government’s propaganda by highlighting inconvenient facts was unlikely to be a good career move. Similarly with Iraq WMD intelligence: Howard was determined to join Bush’s Coalition of the Willing, and obviously didn’t want to know anything about WMD that would make his decision more difficult to sell to the Australian public.
However, the Abu Ghraib torture saga is in a completely different category. Neither Howard nor any Minister had nailed their colours to the mast in a way that would have made revelation of torture stories an embarrassment for them. Nor is it alleged that Australians were in any way involved in the mistreatment of prisoners themselves. Moreover, allegations of prisoner mistreatment have been on the public record for a long time, whether or not they were brought to Howard’s attention. They were simply ignored by just about everyone, including the media, until lurid photographs became available. Only then did the issue hit the public and media radar screen. Even that pompous prat David Marr agrees:
There’s no escaping the conclusion that the Australian media was simply not interested in this story. The prosecutions at Abu Ghraib were ignored – but for a couple of pars buried one day in the Sydney Morning Herald.
In those circumstances, there’s no reason to suspect that public servants might have deliberately withheld information about Abu Ghraib from Ministers, because there was no reason to suspect that Ministers would be embarrassed, discomforted or inconvenienced by possession of that sort of knowledge. Almost certainly, General Cosgrove and other senior military and Defence Department personnel failed to pass on on or highlight the information for exactly the same reason the media ignored it: it was merely one issue among a multitude, and not apparently terribly important from an Australian perspective until the photographs entered the public arena.
I’m not suggesting that mistreatment of prisoners is unimportant; simply that the current ALP and media attempts to turn the story into another “children overboard” Ministerial lying/dissembling saga is just a beat-up. I have no doubt that Australia’s public sector has been politicised and compromised to a dangerous extent by successive governments both Labor and Coalition, but Abu Ghraib isn’t an example of it.