Is it an “interview” or an “interrogation”? Our Defence operative
reports on a Robert Hill’s appearance today before the Senate Estimates
committee.
There’s only one game in town today. And it’s not Democrats leader Lyn
Allison asking questions about nuclear dumps – let alone Labor’s worthy
committeewomen Jan McLucas or Kate Lundy hunting down bureaucrats from
the Office of the Staturs of Women.

It’s all about today’s Senate interrogation of Robert Hill – or should that be, “interview”?

It would be a stretch to say that Minister Hill was appearing before the Senate Defence estimates committee voluntarily.

But not everyone was looking reluctant. An interesting cast of characters assembled for the inquiry:

Labor’s
Grand Inquisitor, John Faulkner, is clearly enjoying himself back in
the limelight. Robert Hill is hunched over with his hands below the
table like a naughty schoolboy, drinking lots of water.

There’s varying levels of enthusiasm from committee members.

Democrats
former leader Andrew Bartlett is there, with a copy of the Geneva
Convention on the treatment of prisoners, tucked under his arm. He’s
optimistic if he thinks the issue at hand is about the torture of
prisoners – it’s about the torture of the Minister.

(I wonder if
a public servant has ever evoked the Geneva Convention – “outrages upon
personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” –
over Estimates grilling?)

Liberal Senator Alan Ferguson is there
– in body if not in spirit. Just a word of advice, senator: if you
absolutely insist on playing Solitaire on your computer during the
hearing, just adjust the screen a little so you don’t get busted.

The
Senators who are paying attention are playing a game called “who knew
what, when”: extracting information and documents from the minister and
his bureaucrats about who knew which Australians were involved in the
detention and arrest of Iraqi prisoners.

Turns out that Uncle
Sam knew. The Defence Department secretary Ric Smith revealed he the US
ambassador Tom Scheiffer about Rod Barton’s revelations last June,
provided him a copy of the Barton interview and asked the Ambassador to
direct it to appropriate authorities.

Subsequently, US armed
forces agent was sent to Australia and interviewed Barton to get
further detail. Smith heard back from them on 19 August “confirming
interview had taken place. We have had no further advice since and nor
would I expect to…”

Proceedings began slowly. Defence
officials started with a statement about finances. Not sure what it all
meant, but given their famous inability last year to account for $8
billion of assets in audit, you probably wouldn’t trust Defence to go
to the corner shop with milk money.

Then Senator Hill read a
statement about how – contrary to previous advice – the ISG (weapons
searching group) WERE in some interviews with Iraqi personnel . Not
interrogations, you understand, but “interviews”, the difference being
they are voluntary. They were conducted with ‘high value Iraqi
personnel’ (ie: people who might know where those pesky WMD’s were).

Hill
said most Australians in the ISG were serving Defence personnel or
government officials, with a few outside specialists contracted (like
Rod Barton).

Faulkner asked for an outline of Barton’s CV and
duty statement. And Bingo! It mentions one of his jobs is assisting
with interviews.

Faulkner to Hill: “Are you aware of other
Australians with similar duty statements (to Barton)? You’re the one
standing up in Parliament making those grand claims that are starting
to sound very, very thin.”

Hill: “You tend not to listen to what’s being said…”

Faulkner:
“We’ve been here 15 minutes and we’ve already established that one of
his duties was assisting with interviews….You’re not listening..”

Hill: “You’re not listening…” etc

Bartlett
was there but it’s unlikely Faulkner is going to give up the floor.
Expect lots of questions beginning “Minister when were you aware…?”

Faulkner eventually threw to the scintillating new Labor senate leader, Chris Evans.

Hill: The ISG was in Iraq to “develop picture of Hussein’s weapons capacity.”

Evans: “Were other instructions guidelines supplied to ISG personnel?”

Hill:
“A ‘concept of operations’ was developed. There were some restrictions
on how they could do their business. One was that they were not to
participate in interrogations.”

Hill said he may, or may not, be able to table the document (presumably with lots of black lines through it)

At this point Hill reaches for his first glass of water.

Enter
Brigadier Steve Meakin (lots of decorations), director of science stuff
at DIO. He is forthright – especially compared to the last few days of
public servant waffle the committee has had to sit through.

Meakin: “Guidance I received was very clear that we were not to be involved in interrogation. Explicitly ruled out.”

Meakin:
“Interrogation is a contentious business. Interrogation in the
Australian Army is only ever conducted by trained personnel. There were
none of those personnel in the contingent….That they were not to be
part of interrogations was reiterated in the post-Abu Ghraib
environment.”

Now we’re back to the DoD public servant. Lot’s of
talk about ‘debriefings’ (which I would have thought was an unfortunate
term in light of Private Lindy England’s infamous buttock pyramids).

At
this point, the rationalisations for Barton’s revelations become
obscure. Apparently, suggests the bureaucrat, Barton may have had a
chat with a bloke about having been involved in an interview with
someone connected to the Iraqi scientist femme fatale, Dr Germ.

Faulkner is all over him. “That doesn’t ring true against the Four Corners interview…”

Our
public servant is reading out bits of transcript of a Barton internal
interview, but Hill corrects him for summarising the answers. They are
going to table the document and take out the personal details.

Talk
amongst the Liberal senators turns to sending home everyone not
involved with the matter at hand (ie: the pesky Barton) “We are not
likely to conclude this before 6.30… at the earliest,” glumly
concludes the chair, Nationals Senator Sandy Macdonald.

Faulkner
taunts Hill, revealing he has the Minister’s opening statement before
it’s even tabled. Minister not impressed. Faulkner explains it’s due to
the efficiency of Hansard.

Faulkner: “It would be extraordinary
for the committee to ignore your opening statement. It is without any
shadow of doubt the flimsiest opening statement ever made.”

Faulkner
comments about deferring to “his Leader, Chris Evans” but he’s clearly
enjoying himself. Wonder if he regrets his post-election Hara Kiri as
Senate leader?

The DoD public servant Michael Fasulo seems
pretty unfazed and keen to be helpful. Lots of unasked for detail
volunteered. (Public Servants at Estimates usually look like rabbits on
the highway and say “senator” every second word.) But they soon bring
on Ric Smith.

Focusing on this meeting on the 31st of March. Faulkner: “This (Barton’s concerns) seem to have just gone into the ether”.

Smith: In the days following, there was no follow-up for three reasons:

1. Barton only MENTIONED this matter and he spoke about conditions not abuse;
2. Meeting was about something bigger;
3.
Point Barton was making was that given concerns about mistreatment
Austalia shouldn’t be involved in taking of detainees, and we weren’t.
Mr Barton subsequently amplified and recorded the sort of concerns he
had only mentioned earlier. In his June interview he amplified it just
a little further.

There is discussion of two letters. Faulkner
wants them. Michael – who is becoming more cautious – says he would
have to take guidance.

Faulkner: “Well there’s the Minister and Departmetn Secreatary. Get guidance.”

Hill: “I am not sure of the incident that is being referred to and I would want to reflect on it.”

Faulkner
is like a dog with a bone. The way this is progressing, Senators can
cancel their Thursday planes out of Canberra and bunk down for at least
another day’s interrogation – er, questioning.