Mamdouh Habib is not everybody’s cup of tea.
If you work in intelligence he’s the sort of person who can drive you potty, popping up in the wrong place at the wrong time and arousing suspicions. But he is an Australian citizen and deserves the full protection that entails. And, as ever, no one’s guilt should be presumed. If it is, and mistakes are made, then they need to be accounted for. If they’re not, and the system rolls on uncleansed, its next victim might be you .
It is in this context that we should be concerned about the disturbing claims that Habib has long made, let alone about the evidence recently given in the defamation case he is currently fighting against News Limited columnist Piers Akerman.
His assertion is that ASIO agents tried twice to recruit him to help find a former Australian soldier who had allegedly joined al-Qaeda in the months before the September 11 attacks in 2001. An infantryman who had served in East Timor, the soldier had been discharged on psychological grounds. Habib claims the first approach was made by an agent (whether or not actually from ASIO is yet to be revealed) when Habib stopped over in the United Arab Emirates on his way to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It must be said that there was nothing wrong with Australian intelligence attempting to recruit Habib for this purpose. Far from it, in fact that’s their job. The immediate reaction of most Australians would be to help where they could.
For whatever reason Habib refused, possibly because of pressure put on him to cooperate. Later, in Pakistan, Habib claims he was waylaid by ASIO again, with the support of local officials. He again refused to cooperate. It seems that he managed to photograph the Australian officer involved and after his release wanted to take that evidence to the Al Jazeera TV network’s representative in Kabul. He travelled to the Afghan capital with a Saudi contact in Pakistan and duly met with Al Jazeera. His Saudi friend then put him up in a guesthouse in Kabul where he made the acquaintance of David Hicks and Jack Thomas. Before long, he claims he had to leave because he was suspected of being a spy. He left Afghanistan and was arrested on a bus while travelling from Quetta to Lahore in Pakistan.
It was from there that he was ‘rendered’ to Egypt, where there is little doubt that he was tortured over an extended period at an interrogation centre in Cairo. It is now clear that the Australian authorities knew where he was and what was happening to him.
Habib claims that his removal to Egypt was at the behest of ASIO. This is a serious charge and one that goes to the essence of citizenship in our democratic State, especially to the central precept that no one is above the law, and certainly not below it. However Habib’s actions may or may not have contributed to his predicament, he should never have been rendered to Egypt.
We need to know exactly what happened and why and who should take responsibility. It’s not simply a matter of blame. We must stop it happening again.
Twenty-two years ago, as Station Commander for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) in Cairo – a deep cover intelligence operation within the Australian Embassy – my cover and that of my assistant were wilfully blown by senior Department of Foreign Affairs officials. To this day they have conveniently escaped both investigation and prosecution. For a while my colleague and I feared we might land in the same interrogation centre that Habib ended up in. Allied intelligence operatives also under cover in Egypt had warned us that if caught, we would be suspected of working for the CIA, if not also for Mossad, and could be tortured without hesitation.
Ironically, it is not difficult for us to identify with Habib’s plight. Even now, I recall the caution of a senior allied operative in Cairo that the master torturers at the centre were all Iraqis, the most exquisite practitioners of those ancient Middle Eastern arts. It doesn’t help you sleep at night.
Was Mamdouh Habib rendered to Egypt out of spite because he refused to cooperate? The question itself is horrendous, but it has to be answered. If we have any care for the health and viability of our democracy we should demand no less.
Recent bungles by some of our key agencies have sullied the reputation of Australia’s intelligence community. The performance of management has done little to allay the fear of many Australians that tight controls and systems of accountability are not in place. What people see in public are agency chiefs unable to take it on the chin and admit mistakes. As a result, public trust is diminished.
But that’s only half of the story. The other is the betrayal of the trust that the overwhelming majority of men and women who staff the agencies and who suffer in silence, need to have in their management. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to function effectively without it.
The new Government in Canberra has a lot of goodwill behind it. More eyes than you would suspect are on it to do the right thing and move certain cronies along without undue delay.
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