Australian foreign minister tells inquiry it was the UN's job to investigate Iraq kickback claims

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Wikinews Australia has in-depth coverage of this issue: Cole Inquiry

Alexander Downer, Australia's foreign affairs minister, told the Cole Inquiry yesterday that it was not his department's job to investigate claims that wheat exporter AWB was paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein in the lead up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Mr Downer, who entered the inquiry via a back entrance to avoid the crowd waiting outside told the inquiry numerous times that he did not read a series of diplomatic cables which raised concerns about AWB in Iraq. Mr Downer admitted that he did not have the time to read diplomatic cables and the only time he did so was when he is "stuck on a plane" and has nothing else to read.

The claims are in stark contrast to a statement made to parliament in February where Mr Downer said "Of course I would have read them".

When asked why the department of foreign affairs and trade did nothing about the allegations first received in 2000, he told the inquiry that his department couldn't investigate AWB and responsibility for the oil for food program laid with the UN. " The department does not have the legal authority to go into AWB and access their files" he said.

"They (the UN) also had people on the ground in Iraq because insofar as there could be infringements of the sanctions regime, those infringements could take place within Iraq and Australia had no access to Iraq during that period." Mr Downer told the inquiry.

Mr Downer admitted that the department of foreign affairs and trade had dealt with each cable, despite he not reading them and that were satisfied with assurances from AWB that there was no substance to the allegations.

Mr Downer was also asked about an unassessed intelligence report, sent to the National Security Committee of cabinet which raised concerns about Alia, the Jordanian trucking company used by the AWB to transport wheat around Iraq. The document alleged that Alia may have been paying kickbacks to the Iraqi regime.

Mr Downer told the inquiry that the intelligence may not have been dealt with."There is so much intelligence. It's a very major challenge, to deal with intelligence" he said.

When asked by Terry Forrest, counsel for AWB executives what the point of sending intelligence to his department when it was never read, Mr Downer conceded that it was "physically impossible" to read it all.

Mr Downer was also questioned about a cable delivered in June 2003 from US army captain Puckett which claimed that every contract under the UN's oil for food program contained a kickback. Mr Downer told the inquiry he didn't see the cable as being important because the information was provided by "a junior officer in the US army".

Mr Downer denied claims made by former AWB executive Andrew Lindberg that he had been told about the possibility that money may have been paid to Iraq by Alia. According to Mr Downer it is common practice in his department to have two advisors at such meetings, where one of them takes notes so there is a record of what is said. According to Mr Downer, no notes were taken during the meeting despite it being "the usual practice".

Mr Downer told the inquiry that he had no idea why notes weren't taken during the meeting, despite the meeting being quite important. He also told the inquiry that he couldn't recall if he noticed that nobody was taking notes as he would have been "focused a little more on the meeting than on somebody taking notes".


Related Wikinews

"Australia's deputy PM faces Iraqi kickback inquiry" — Wikinews, April 11, 2006

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This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.