Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Whitewash of the Week

The Extraordinary Rendition of Mamdouh Habib

Today, Chris Hammer of The Age reports:

THE United States sent Australian terror suspect Mamdouh Habib to be interrogated in Egypt in defiance of repeated pleas from Canberra not to do so, Australia's top spy has revealed.

ASIO director-general Paul O'Sullivan said the US was told several times that Australia opposed sending Mr Habib to another country for interrogation — a process known as rendition — after his arrest in Pakistan in 2001.

Mr O'Sullivan told a Senate hearing he believed Australia's concern at the time was that Mr Habib would be tortured, a fear later backed up by Mr Habib, who says he was brutally treated in Egypt.

Mr O'Sullivan made that revelation at the estimates hearing of the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs. You can access the Hansard record of the committee proceedings here (PDF format) and here (Parlinfo web page).

According to Hammer's report:

Mr O'Sullivan said Australian officials in Pakistan formed the view on October 22, 2001, that Mr Habib might be "rendered" — transferred to a third country for interrogation — and conveyed concerns to Canberra.

A meeting in Canberra the next day — attended by then ASIO director-general Denis Richardson and senior representatives of the Federal Police and three government departments — decided that Australia would oppose his rendition.

This is a bit of a distortion of O'Sullivan's actual account of events, given in answers to questions from NSW Greens Senator, Kerry Nettle:

Senator NETTLE — I want to ask questions in relation to the rendition of Mamdouh Habib. I want to start with an answer that this committee received last week from the Attorney-General’s Department, which refers to a meeting that, we found out this morning, was on 23 October in 2001. In the answer from the Attorney-General’s Department it states that senior officials from ASIO, AFP, Foreign Affairs, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General’s Department agreed that the Australian government could not agree to the transfer of Mr Habib. I want to start by asking you who represented ASIO at that meeting.

Mr O’Sullivan — Of course, I was not involved at that stage but, if I understand correctly, there was a meeting on another matter in Canberra. I do not know what that other matter was but at the end of it there was a pull-aside, to use an American expression, and Mr Richardson, my predecessor was the ASIO person at that meeting.

In plain terms, and contrary to the impression conveyed by The Age's report, there was no formally convened meeting between ASIO, the AFP and other departments about Mamdouh Habib's detention in Pakistan. It was discussed informally after 'a meeting on another matter'.

O'Sullivan's answers to further questions from Senator Nettle seem a little confused:

Senator NETTLE — The answer from the Attorney-General’s Department says that the senior officials from those various departments that I mentioned agreed that the Australian government could not agree to a transfer of Mr Habib to Egypt. Was there a request to transfer Mr Habib to Egypt?

Mr O’SullivanI believe no is the answer.


Senator NETTLE — The reason that I was asking Mr Keelty about this this morning was that he previously provided information to this committee that the AFP liaison officer in Islamabad was present at a meeting in Pakistan on 22 October, the day before, at which the transfer of Mr Habib to Egypt was discussed. So, I thought that when we were here this morning with the AFP, perhaps that pull-aside or discussion had been initiated by the AFP. At that point I was told that it was not the Australian Federal Police but ASIO. Can you tell me if that is correct?

Mr O’Sullivan — I am not sure exactly what the dynamics of the arrangement were, but I think you might be overformalising it when you talk about who convened or chaired it? It is clear that a meeting took place and it is clear that Mr Richardson was a central figure in that discussion. Whether he convened it in the sense that you are using that word, I am not sure, but there was a pull-aside at the end of a meeting on another matter and he was centrally involved with it for sure.

Once again, O'Sullivan reminds us that there was no formal, minuted discussion of Habib's possible transfer to Egypt - merely a 'pull-aside' involving interested parties from various departments.

Senator NETTLE — Was it information from ASIO that led to that discussion occurring?

Mr O’Sullivan — I do not think it was information from ASIO exclusively. I think there had been a meeting the previous day — if I have got the dates correct — in Pakistan, that you are referring to, and one of the things that happened at that meeting in Pakistan was a discussion of hypothetical possibilities. One of those possibilities was that Mr Habib could be transferred from Pakistan to Egypt. What happened then at the meeting of 23 October in Canberra was that the officials, including Mr Richardson, considered that issue and came to the conclusion that you have described — that is to say that the Australian government would not give assent to such a process of rendition, if that is what you want to describe it as.

Senator NETTLE — What did ASIO do after that meeting to ensure that the decision of that discussion was conveyed and to whom?

Mr O’Sullivan — Mr Richardson conveyed that information to the United States.

And there's the only basis for the assertion that the US defied Australia's wishes when they transferred Mamdouh Habib to Egypt. The current head of ASIO has told a Senate Estimates hearing that the former head of ASIO conveyed the decision of an informal discussion of Canberra bureaucrats to the United States - somehow.

An interesting question arises here: was then Prime Minister John Howard told about this decision? That depends:

Senator NETTLE — Did ASIO brief the Prime Minister about that discussion?

Mr O’Sullivan — I do not know what conversations Mr Richardson may have had privately, but the essence of the meeting was conveyed to senior people in Canberra, including all those who had a need to know. I do not have the list of people in front of me, but it was a piece of intelligence reporting that was distributed appropriately in Canberra.

Unfortunately, because the information was highly classified, O'Sullivan refused to discuss who was on the 'need to know' list. There's also the small matter of the difference between 'need to know' and 'want to know' and John Howard's preference for governing on the latter basis.

Senator NETTLE — Can I ask you what ASIO did, beyond conveying to the United States the decision of that meeting, to ensure that an Australian citizen was not transferred to Egypt?

Mr O’Sullivan — Essentially, the issue of the transfer and treatment of an Australian overseas is a matter for the department of foreign affairs. ASIO’s job is to make sure that that department has that information, and that is what happened in this case.


Senator NETTLE — This morning — again, it is other people’s descriptions of ASIO’s role — I asked the AFP and I asked Attorney-General’s Department what action they took to ensure that the decision of that pull-aside was implemented. Their indication was that they did not take action and it was ASIO’s responsibility. I want to make clear what ASIO did, apart from telling the Americans.

Mr O’SullivanAs I said, the Director-General of ASIO informed the United States authorities that it was not the Australian government’s policy and position to engage in practices of rendition. (emphasis added)

Later, under further questioning from Senator Nettle, O'Sullivan identifies those 'United States authorities' as people at a senior level in the US State Department and the intelligence community. If what they were told was as wishy-washy as O'Sullivan says then no-one in any level of the US government was told, clearly and unambiguously, that Australia didn't want Mamdouh Habib sent to Egypt.

What a cock-up.

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