How the Howard government attempted to get Australians on board for war against Iraq.
Some ten days ago a former Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) officer, James Sievers, appeared in a Canberra, Australia, court to answer charges that he had copied secret intelligence documents and had them posted to ‘The Australian’ newspaper. The documents were about warnings during the period leading up to the 12 October 2002 Bali bombings that terrorists in Indonesia were planning attacks on ‘sin spots’.
The bombings killed 202 people including 88 Australians. At the time, Brian Deegan, the father of one of the Australian victims, a lawyer and magistrate in Adelaide, Australia, insisted that the then Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, knew of the terrorist threat but had failed to warn Australian tourists. Downer denied that he had received any warning about threats to Bali. Later, Downer’s spokesman chose his words carefully saying there had been no specific warning about the Bali attacks. An inquiry by Australian Inspector-General of Security and Intelligence Bill Blick white-washed accusations against the Howard government that there had been clear warnings of an impending attack and that Downer had failed to provide adequate warning.
The reality was that Downer had been briefed personally on 18 and 19 June 2002 by officers from Australia’s Office of National Assessments (ONA) and was told specifically that Bali and Singapore were ‘attractive targets for the al-Qaeda linked Jamaah Islamiah terrorist network’ and just two weeks prior to the bombing was warned by US intelligence services that there was a threat specifically to Bali. There was even specific travel warnings posted by US authorities that were not repeated on Downer’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) travel warning website.
The evidence is clear: Downer and Australian Prime Minister John Howard were very much aware of the imminent threat to foreign tourist hotspots in Bali prior to the bombings but failed to provide any warning. The question that remains to answered is simple; why did they tell Australian tourists in Bali of the threat and danger of being there?
Prior to the Bali bombings there had been a mounting popular movement in Australia, as well as around the world, against Howard taking Australia to war against Iraq. Just the weekend before the Bali bombings there had been a series of anti-war marches and demonstrations across Australia as there had been all over the world. There had even been a protest at the US spy site in out-back Australia at Pine Gap. Howard, despite his denials, had already wholeheartedly committed Australia to Bush’s war against Iraq and was desperate to have some event to turn tide of dissent against him; the Bali bombings would have been, at least he might have hoped, just such an event. As it turned out, the Bali bombings, rather than galvanise the people of Australia to support Howard’s march to war, had the opposite effect; the Australian people saw the Bali bombings more as some kind of retribution for blindly following the US than a call to join Bush’s fight against Iraq.
At the time, Howard responded by saying that the Bali bombings was in response to Australia’s intervention in East Timor adding that it couldn’t have been because of Australia’s commitment to the US lead-up to the war against Iraq because, so he said, at that time he’d not yet made such a commitment. Of course, all Australians – and, indeed, the Bali bombers – knew that he had.
The evidence, at the moment, is only circumstantial but there is no doubt that Downer and Howard knew of an impending attack against Bali tourist hotspots frequented by Australian’s, particularly at that time of year when many sport and social clubs took time out in Bali to have some end of season fun, yet did nothing to warn Australian’s about the danger. There is also no doubt that a terrorist attack on Australian’s would have been viewed by Howard as being in his interests with regard to his alliance and commitment to George W. Bush’s upcoming war against Iraq for which he would want to have the support of Australian public opinion. At the time, Australian public opinion was running strongly against Howard taking Australia to war against Iraq; the Bali bombing would have been seen as an event that might well turn Australian public opinion in Howard’s favour. As it transpired he was wrong but he could not have known at the time that his ploy was likely to backfire on him.
While the circumstantial evidence is still only that, it is, nonetheless, becoming increasingly compelling as more and more evidence emerges. It can only be hoped that eventually when the truth is finally revealed that Howard and Downer and those others involved will answer for their crimes.