A week before Christmas last year, the independent authority that acts as a watchdog over Australia’s Intelligence agencies handed the results of a year-long investigation to the Prime Minister. The investigation was into the involvement of Australian government officials in the illegal arrest, detention, and torture overseas of Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib. But, since arriving in the Prime Minister’s office two and a half months ago, the contents of this crucial report remain secret.
The report has not been publicly released, despite the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, who conducted the investigation, also providing the Prime Minister with a version of the report described as "suitable for public release".
In a letter to Mamdouh Habib, the Inspector-General Vivienne Thom said she had handed her report to the Prime Minister on 19 December 2011, and that "I have also provided the Prime Minister with an abridged version of the report which is suitable for public release. I have suggested that you should be provided with a personal copy of this public report."
Habib has not seen this report. He says he has written a number of letters to the Prime Minister’s office and received no reply.
Greens Senator Bob Brown wrote to the Prime Minister in early February asking for the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) report to be made public. On Tuesday this week he tabled a motion in the Senate, asking for the report to be tabled by mid-March. In a rare spirit of cooperation, the Labor Party and the Coalition joined forces to vote the motion down. Only the Greens and Independent Senator Nick Xenophon voted in favour of tabling the report.
However, despite sitting on the report since late last year and blocking Senators Brown’s parliamentary motion, the Prime Minister’s office told New Matilda yesterday that a version of the report should be released, soon. A spokesperson said: "The Government is considering the report’s findings and we expect to release an unclassified version of the report in coming weeks."
The apparently imminent release of even a version of the IGIS report is a hugely significant moment in what has been a long and disturbing saga: will it finally bring an end to 10 years of official obfuscation?
As is well established now, Mamdouh Habib was subject to a CIA counter-terrorism practice called "Extraordinary Rendition", colloquially known as the outsourcing of torture. Arrested in Pakistan in late 2001, he was handed over to the CIA, who then flew him to Egypt. For the next five months the Egyptians interrogated him on behalf of the CIA. Habib says he was brutally tortured — beaten, shocked with an electric prod, suspended from the ceiling, and threatened with rape by dogs.
The key question dealt with by the IGIS is whether Australian officials either acquiesced, or even assisted their American colleagues in this horrific ordeal.
Habib has always maintained that Australian officials were present during his interrogations in Pakistan, complicit in his transfer to Egypt, and even physically present on the ground in Egypt. He says his Egyptian captors interrogated him about the contents of a mobile phone sim card that was taken by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) from his home in Sydney while he was overseas — if true, this suggests the sharing of information between national intelligence agencies.
Successive Australian governments and intelligence officials have denied involvement in Habib’s rendition. Their credibility has been damaged though by their reluctance to be forthcoming about what they did know. For example, after seven years of denying any knowledge of the rendition at all, a Senate Estimates hearing in 2008 revealed that senior officials from the Australian Federal Police, ASIO, the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Attorney-General’s Department, all knew the United States was considering "rendering" Habib, before it occurred.
These claims of official Australian complicity were the centrepiece of a six-year-long compensation case that Mamdouh Habib fought against the Federal Government. It was a protracted court case, vigorously defended by first the Howard government, then the Rudd government.
In late 2010, as the case looked like it could go on forever, Habib’s legal team produced two witness statements; one from an Egyptian Military Officer who worked in the prison Habib was held in, and another from a former prisoner. Both alleged witnessing the presence of Australian officials in Egypt. (Neither of these statements was ever tested in court.)
The Federal government suddenly and swiftly offered to settle the case. In a confidential settlement, Habib received a financial payment and agreed to forgo all future claims against the Commonwealth. While it initially appeared this was the end of the search for the truth of what happened to Habib, a few weeks later Prime Minister Gillard ordered the IGIS to investigate.
The IGIS is mandated to make sure that Australian intelligence agencies act "legally and with propriety, comply with ministerial guidelines and directives and respect human rights". It has the power to compel witnesses to give evidence, and to enter the premises of intelligence agencies. New national security legislation has recently expanded its powers, giving it the right to investigate an intelligence or security matter relating to any Commonwealth agency, not just intelligence agencies.
The Inspector General Vivienne Thom used these new powers for the first time during the Habib investigation. Halfway through her inquiry she requested that the scope be broadened because: ”It became apparent to me that officers from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General’s Department were also directly involved in decision-making at the time.”
So, what to expect from the IGIS report? Critics have pointed to the closed-door nature of IGIS investigations, and said a public inquiry would have been a far better vehicle to pursue these serious allegations.
Greens Senator Bob Brown says he has no faith in the report until he reads it — and he wants to see both versions, the public and the original.
"I am aware there are matters relating to intelligence organisations that shouldn’t be made public, for example names and addresses of intelligence officers. And if that is what has been blacked out, good, let them say so. But when it comes to the activities of the agencies, if that is what is censored, then you can’t rest easy about that. If there are blacked out pieces in, well let me or other parliamentarians see it on a condition of confidentiality."
According to Senator Brown, the stakes are too high to allow there to be any remaining secrecy over this affair.
"There is a very clear public interest test here. If there is any truth here, to an Australian citizen being tortured in another country, either with the knowledge and failure to act, or worse still with an active assistance or cooperation of any Australian official, that needs to be brought to light to make sure it never happens again. If there is nothing untoward, then there should be no problem with have this process open to the light of day."
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