What an extraordinarily good intelligence service the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade provides for Australian businessmen – just drop in on our ambassador to the UN and pick up a 13-month advance warning of the US and Australian intention to invade Iraq, as well as the good word on the UN weapons inspections business being of no consequence to Washington or Canberra.

That’s what DFAT did for AWB chairman Trevor Flugge in early 2002, according to board minutes released by the Cole inquiry yesterday and reported by Marian Wilkinson in the Smage.

It is incredible stuff, even in the context of the extraordinary AWB saga. The immediate inclination is to think this is one more indication that John Howard repeatedly lied to Australia about our involvement in Iraq – but why bother about a man who still thinks we did the right thing in Vietnam?

Perhaps more intriguing is the question of just how AWB’s chairman was able to obtain such privileged information. My suspicion is that it’s because key AWB people were already inside the intelligence tent. The (publicly) unasked question about AWB’s role in the Middle East is how much of it was hand-in-glove with our spooks.

When the criminal charges start flying in the wake of Cole (one lawyer reckons 16 individuals will find themselves before courts for one reason or another), it will be interesting to see if the spook card is played above or below the table.

The extraordinary access AWB enjoyed at all levels and in all arms of government and the sensitivity of the areas in which it did business, plus the total lack of anything like oversight of its activities reeks of individuals playing the great game.

It should make plea bargaining interesting.

Peter Fray

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