After my relaxing weekend, I travelled to Canberra on Tuesday for a Committee hearing into claims of Australian involvement in interrogations in Iraq. This Inquiry was set up following allegations in a Four Corners report that the Government had misled the Parliament and the public in saying that no Australians were involved in any interrogations.
After further questioning at Estimates Committee hearings in February (page 36 onwards), the Senate decided to establish a specific Inquiry into the matter, supporting a joint motion moved by the Labor, Democrat and Green Parties.
This was the first hearing and the Committee heard from just the one witness – the man who made the allegations on Four Corners, Rod Barton. He is a retired intelligence analyst with a very impressive career stretching back to investigations in Laos and Cambodia in the early 1980s, as well as experience in Africa and Iraq through the 1990s. He came out of retirement to assist with the Iraq Survey Group in looking for weapons of mass destruction after the war.
There was a good turnout from the Committee, with 3 Coalition and 3 Labor Senators there, along with myself. A few of the specialist defence journalists from the press gallery also came along specifically to watch.
There was a lot of focus on the issue of whether people had been conducting ‘interviews’ or ‘interrogations’, with Mr Barton taking the common sense view that there was a lot of overlap between the two concepts and the words could quite reasonably be used interchangeably in describing what was done. However, the Government Senators’ were focused on manufacturing a distinct divide between the two terms, because the Minister had specifically told Parliament that no Australians had conducted or were present during interrogations and had continued to insist this was the case. I couldn’t quite see why the Government didn’t just acknowledge that there was a misunderstanding and correct the record, rather than continue to insist on such a dubious pedantic distinction.
To me, this was much less sigifinicant than Mr Barton’s claims that he had raised concerns about mistreatment of prisoners which had not been properly investigated, not to mention the fact that some of those people were still being held prisoner today – almost certainly illegally. The questioning from the Government Senators seemed mainly focused on trying to attack the credibility and accuracy of Mr Barton’s comments, rather like a defence lawyer trying to destroy the credibility of a witness by playing around with words and trying to create the perception of inconsistencies. This has become a fairly predictable approach from the Government, but I still found it rather irritating. Mr Barton seemed to handle it in his stride though.
This was just a one day hearing at this stage, although the Committee will probably have further hearings. I managed to fit it into a day trip, getting a 6.10am flight out of Brisbane and arriving back about 7.00pm. If you are interested in reading the Hansard record of the day’s proceedings you can find it here.