In the welter of coverage of Mark Vaile’s 82 minutes on the Cole stage yesterday afternoon, it has been easy to overlook the morning’s warm-up act of spooks also doing Sergeant Schultz impersonations. They were less convincing than the Deputy Prime Minister.

The SMH‘s David Marr didn’t miss the alleged “intelligence” types in the body of his story:

There was David Stewart, first assistant secretary international security division in the Foreign Affairs Department – a spook’s spook with a comb over – who explained how reasonable it was that Australia’s top diplomats failed to put two and two together despite years of intelligence reports about exactly the sort of sanctions-busting AWB was getting up to.

Peter Varghese, the director general of the Office of National Assessment, was there yesterday on the same mission: to explain with exquisite precision how reasonable it was that his office never ordered these intelligence reports be pulled together for assessment.

But he did make one important admission: that at some point ONA briefed the national security committee of cabinet on “the Iraqi interest in surcharges”. He thought this was probably during the oil-for-food years and the report went to the most senior members of government.

In some of the most caustic exchanges in months of hearings, the commissioner Terence Cole, QC, fiercely defended these men from attempts by the inquiry’s terrier, Lachlan Carter – the barrister for a clutch of AWB executives, including gun-toting Michael Long – to mount a wide-ranging cross examination.

The Canberra spook brigade, with one notable exception, is well practised in the art of claiming the protection of incompetence over Iraq. Like their political masters, they’ve managed to avoid censure for getting the reason for going to war totally wrong, so what’s a little AWB baksheesh in the general scheme of things? When you’ve had a hand in killing people on false pretences, greasing the wheels of the wheat trade barely rates.

It is intriguing that Cole defended the spymasters from wider cross examination – but that will come as no surprise to followers of Crikey’s thus-far successful Cole inquiry forecasting service. “National security” and undisclosed files are the order of the day on what the spooks were up to with AWB. Misinformation and economy with the truth are their stock in trade.

With those skills and the well-documented politicisation of their craft, the “we wuz just dumb” line remains the order of the day.

The only real interest in Alexander Downer’s performance this afternoon will be judging whether he can play Schultz even better than Vaile. My guess is that he will. Remember that Downer as Opposition Leader made John Howard look good. Yes, he has a lot to answer for.

Peter Fray

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