When the Commonwealth Games begin in Melbourne next week Australia will become one of the most tempting terrorist targets in the world. “During the games, the Australian government as a whole will support Victoria in a number of different ways: through our intelligence agency and the Australian Federal Police,” Attorney General Phillip Ruddock said in an answer to a dixer on Thursday .

The head of that intelligence agency may be distracted. ASIO boss Paul O’Sullivan’s name came up at the Cole inquiry yesterday.

“AWB chairman Brendan Stewart told the Cole inquiry yesterday he had travelled to Canberra on May 31 to brief ministers and senior officials about the UN investigation, which ultimately revealed that AWB provided $290 million to Saddam’s regime in the years leading up to the 2003 Iraq war,” The Australian reports.

Those ministers allegedly included Alexander Downer, Warren Truss and John Anderson. AWB executives also met Anderson’s then chief of staff, Peter Langhorne, a former deputy secretary of Austrade, DFAT secretary Michael L’Estrange, and Trade Minister Mark Vaile’s chief of staff, Brad Williams.

“At all of these meetings, the topic of discussion was ‘Project Rose’ – the code name AWB gave to allegations that it bribed Saddam’s regime,” The Australian says. The AWB delegation also discussed Project Rose with the security adviser from the Prime Minister’s office – Paul O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan would not comment yesterday, but the Cole allegations will only reinforce concerns in the intelligence community here and among our allies that O’Sullivan should not be in his job.

In July last year, in the aftermath of O’Sullivan’s appointment, Warren Reed, a former station chief with Australia’s overseas intelligence agency ASIS, accused the ASIO boss of blowing the cover of an ASIS agent and forcing the closure of the ASIS mission when he was a diplomat at the Australian Embassy in Cairo. These claims were taken seriously enough to warrant a studio interview with Laurie Oakes on Sunday.

When asked about “angst in the security community about the appointment of a bureaucrat” as head of ASIO, Reed described the decision as “a rank insult to the ASIO staff at a time when we desperately need their energy streaming in a positive direction to help in the fight against terrorism”.

The Prime Minister, travelling in the US, defended his appointmentwith a brisk “What I will say on that, is that there was an inquiry carried out by Mr Justice Samuels and that inquiry did not report adversely in any way on Mr O’Sullivan. I don’t therefore have anything further to say.”

Yet a week later Paul Malone from the Canberra Times spoke to Samuels about details of his investigation, including the claim that he knew the ambassador in Egypt at the time, Ken Rogers. “Asked if he thought this might be reason to disqualify himself from looking at the matter, he said, ‘No, because we didn’t go into those allegations’,” Malone wrote.

The Financial Review commented at the time: “The emergence of the allegations may reflect concerns amongst career intelligence officers about the recent trends for diplomats to be appointed to senior intelligence agency positions.”

And not just diplomats. O’Sullivan’s appointment was acutely political. And as we have seen through Crikey’s explorations of the AWB inquiry, intelligence, or information, is an acutely political commodity – what is sought and what is reported to who.

Intelligence exists to reveal hidden truths that the nation needs to know, not to satisfy the whims of politicians. These can be embarrassing. Does today’s politicised bureaucracy want to uncover these truths? Is O’Sullivan’s ASIO serving our needs or the Prime Minister’s?

Peter Fray

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