The release of the Chilcot report into the British government’s decision to join the United States-led invasion of Iraq took almost as long to deliver as the battle to investigate one of Australia’s most highly classified leaks — to Andrew Bolt.
In 2003 Andrew Wilkie resigned from the Office of National Assessments over the decision by Australia’s government to join the fight. But before quitting, Wilkie, as an analyst, had written a top-secret intelligence paper on the potential humanitarian impact of invading Iraq.
In June 2003, after Wilkie had been speaking out in the media and before parliamentary committees on Iraq, Bolt sought to discredit Wilkie’s expertise on the Iraq campaign. He wrote a Herald Sun column entitled “Spook misspoke” quoting from the ONA report:
“Andrew Wilkie sells himself as the spy who couldn’t be fooled over Iraq. He’s the one spook who didn’t buy what he calls the Howard Government’s ‘fairytale’ and ‘exaggerations’ about the threat of Saddam Hussein. But when I go through the only secret report that Wilkie ever wrote about Iraq as an Office of National Assessments analyst, I wonder just who fell for a ‘fairytale’.”
While Federal Police have been swift to raid the offices of the Labor Party in relation to leaks from the NBN, we gather Bolt’s office was never raided as part of the investigation into how he obtained such highly classified material. Bolt’s source is still unknown. According to Media Watch at the time, all copies of the report were supposed to be under lock and key, except for a copy given to then-foreign minister Alexander Downer’s office three days before the Bolt article was published.
Although Wilkie ultimately ended up in Parliament as the MP for Denison, Labor has kept up the battle to find out who the leaker was. The AFP conducted an investigation throughout late 2003 and 2004 into the leak but police made no arrests or prosecutions. Under freedom of information law, Labor MP Andrew Leigh sought a copy of the AFP report from the investigation in April 2015 and obtained a redacted copy, in which the names of the staffers in Downer’s office who had been interviewed as part of the investigation were removed.
Leigh had, correctly, speculated that Liberal minister Josh Frydenberg, then a staffer for Downer and John Howard, would be named in the document.
In late May, the case went before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which ultimately decided, to the objections of the staff involved, to publish the names in the report. While Bolt was seeking to use the document to discredit Wilkie, the report is a chilling insight into the AFP’s methods to attempt to track down a journalist’s source. Police accessed Downer and Frydenberg’s call records to hunt down the leaker but could not find any contact with Bolt at the time.
The AFP report reveals Downer’s office had three copies of the report; the third was faxed to Downer staffer Craig Maclachlan, who was working with Frydenberg. The report suggests there was “nothing to link” the staffers’ calls at the time to Bolt. In the interview given to the AFP at the time, Frydenberg said he had locked the report in question in a safe overnight and then faxed it to Downer in the morning. Downer was said to have “disposed of the document in a suitable manner”. There were 84 copies of the report in circulation and “widespread non-compliance with document handling procedures”.
The AFP investigation ultimately found no direct evidence to suggest the document Frydenberg had was the source used in the Bolt article. The ONA document, while being top-secret, was “unremarkable”, according to the AFP, and Wilkie himself put much of its contents in the public arena before Bolt’s article.
While Bolt said he was going through the report, the AFP found that without any visual image “it cannot be categorically ruled out that he compiled his story without direct access”.
Wilkie again referred Bolt to the AFP when he again made reference to the report in an article in 2014, but the AFP said there was not enough evidence to warrant reopening the investigation. Following the damning Chilcot report released this week, Wilkie is now calling for a Chilcot-style inquiry into Australia’s involvement in Iraq:
“Frankly, the blood of the Australians killed in the 2005 Bali bombing, and in the Lindt Cafe siege and elsewhere, is on their hands. These matters have never been properly investigated in Australia and there remains a pressing need for an inquiry similar to Chilcot.”