The revelation
that Australia’s former Ambassador to the United States Michael Thawley
lobbied to put the brakes on a US Senate investigation into AWB’s dodgy
wheat dealings has released a flood of backroom letters, memos and
emails – with no smoking gun in sight.

But
one of the more interesting items was a letter from the US Senator Norm
Coleman, which disclosed that Thawley tried to convince Coleman to drop
his investigation into AWB back in October 2003. The letter also
alluded to the work of a “rogue journalist,” who Thawley suggested was
involved in a smear campaign against the Australian wheat industry or
was a front for the US Wheat Marketing Board.

The past few
days have been peppered with talk about who this “rogue journalist”
could be, with most in the Australian media concluding that it was The Australian reporter, Caroline Overington, who was working for the Fairfax broadsheets at the time.

But
it seems that Overington is probably not the journalist referred to in
Coleman’s letter – the most likely culprit isn’t even an Australian
journalist, but rather an investigative agriculture journalist writing
for the influential Congress Daily, a US publication delivered to Congress members every morning.

Jerry
Hagstrom broke the news that wheat was being sold to Iraq at alarmingly
high prices ($297 per ton, vs the US price of $151) in late October
2003 – just days before Thawley came to Coleman and pressured him to
call off his investigation.

The Washington-based Hagstrom went
to the AWB, who told him the inflation was due to incidental costs
involved in the wheat trade; he went to the US State Department and to
Congress to gather information; and he eventually got hold of the
official wheat contracts between AWB and Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Hagstrom received a hero like reception from the board of U.S. Wheat Associates, which showered him with praise for his reporting of the affair.

“Where
we learned about contracts, he found documents,” the board’s chairman,
Alan Lee, said of Hagstrom. “Where we knew something fishy was going on
with the AWB, he proved it beyond a doubt – and then he told the world
or, more importantly for our work, he told Congress.”

The idea
that Hagstrom, who probably had the AWB rumours leaked to him by US
wheat growers, was the “rogue journalist” makes more sense than any
Australian journalist, if only for the line in Coleman’s letter
referring to the reports as a front for the US Wheat Marketing Board.

NBC
followed up Hagstrom’s story and it snowballed from there. From what
Crikey has been able to dig up on Hagstrom, he’s no wheat industry
mouthpiece, although he’s held in very high regard in Washington’s
influential agriculture circles.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW