The Guardian 6 April, 2005

Iraq inquiry: all eyes on Barton

Peter Mac

This week an Australian Senate inquiry into the background of the US-led invasion of Iraq, will focus once again on the critical testimony of Australian weapons expert Rod Barton.

After the invasion, Barton joined the US Iraq Survey Group (ISG) on the recommendation of the Howard government, to search for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. At the time the ISG (which former weapons inspector Hans Blix described as the "coalition of willing inspectors") had failed to find any WMDs and its boss, David Kay, had just resigned. As Barton commented, Kay was like a man who has discovered that there is no God.

Barton encountered great resistance to his efforts to write an honest and objective report. During one heated discussion an ISG member sneered, "What the fuck would you know?"

Barton resigned early last year as a result of ISG procrastination and the watering down or distortion of its reports by US authorities. Shortly afterwards, the ISG finally caved in and decided to cease its prolonged but fruitless investigation, to come clean and finalise the report. In August, Barton rejoined the organisation. He approved of its final report, but commented that it could have been released six months earlier.

In an ABC Four Corners program last February Barton contradicted the Howard government's claim that no Australian had been involved in the interrogation of Iraqi prisoners. When Barton stated that he had taken part in one such interrogation himself, the government immediately sought refuge in semantics, calling the event an interview, not an interrogation.

However, Barton had previously written to the Minister for Defence, Robert Hill, describing his own involvement in the interrogations. His testimony has provided clear evidence that the government has deliberately sought to deceive the Australian people.

The government's argument in its defence is laughable. Questioning someone you have imprisoned as an enemy could hardly be described as an interview. In any case, the "interrogation/interview" debate is a red herring for several reasons.

Firstly, as the government knows full well, its original claim that no one had been interrogated in Iraq would have been taken by most people to mean that no Australian had been involved in questioning of any sort. This has now been disproved by Barton's statement.

Secondly, interrogation may take a number of forms, from quiet and reasonable discussion (which the government implied had been the case with regard to Barton's involvement) to questioning under extreme torture.

Thirdly, a combination of different approaches may also be used by the interrogator for tactical reasons, (the classic "good cop, bad cop" routine). Barton himself is quietly spoken and polite, and appears to have had a good relationship with the prisoner he questioned, a former Iraqi general. This does not mean that the prisoner was not "softened up", either before or after Barton questioned him.

Barton had been deeply shocked by the suicide of his friend and colleague, British scientist David Kelly. Significantly, he told the Senate inquiry unequivocally that one British official had attempted to "sex up" the ISG reports, to favour the US and UK position.

Barton's decision to go public was in part prompted by witnessing clear evidence of injuries suffered by prisoners at the sinister "Camp Cropper" prison, reserved by the US for holding important prisoners, and at a nearby interrogation facility known as "Purgatory".

He became increasingly disturbed at the harsh conditions at Cropper, and by the suspicious death of one of its prisoners. He was also appalled at the obvious prejudice of many ISG staff members and its leadership in favour of the US administration's position.

Last week Barton shook the government once again by disclosing that a British specialist, as well as an Australian colleague now known to be Dr John Gee, had also resigned over the ISG cover- up. Moreover, he revealed that Gee had immediately contacted Foreign Minister Alexander Downer over the issue.

Barton called for the release of all prisoners from Camp Cropper and also disclosed that it was primarily the US Central Intelligence Agency that had attempted to alter the ISG reports. And just to cap it all off, he stated that the abuse of prisoners had continued long after the release of the hideous Abu Ghraib prison photos. To back it up he also provided copies of US documents which revealed that Camp Cropper prisoners were subjected to regular beatings.

As might have been expected, last week Barton was greeted with undisguised animosity, bordering on hatred, by coalition members of the committee. When one Liberal MP barked out a series of questions concerning use of the word interrogation, Barton wearily invited the MP to use whatever term he fancied.

Barton will undoubtedly be subjected to the same hostile treatment this week. The inquiry will resume as The Guardian goes to press. It should be very revealing, to say the least. It should be noted that such inquiries will almost certainly cease after July, when the Howard government finally gets a majority in both houses of Parliament.

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