6 Dec. 2006

The "Biological Agent" Lie: Whodunnit?

Yet another scandalous top-level Howard government lie exposed. But this could be more than just a lie. It seems to me that the Howard government has engaged in a deliberate act of premeditated terrorism.

On June 1st, 2005, Alexander Downer told parliament that a suspicious package had been sent to the Indonesian embassy.
Soon after question time he revealed "the initial analysis of the powder has tested positive as a biological agent, though further testing will need to be carried out to determine what the substance actually is".

John Howard then told reporters that sending the powder to the embassy was an act of "murderous criminality". He rejected a suggestion from a reporter the substance could turn out to be "rather benign".

"No … the reference biological agent does not mean it's benign," he said.
Now it has been confirmed that the scary powder was just flour. The Sydney Morning Herald's Matthew Moore launches a brave attack on Howard and Downer, saying they personally "distorted test results":
Documents from ACT Pathology and the federal police, obtained under freedom of information laws, show the microbiologist who examined the powder on June 1 last year and the federal police never called it a "biological agent", and described it as a commonly occurring bacteria.
So common, in fact, that it even turns up in plain flour. So how did the term "biological agent" end up all over the papers?
Constable Helena Cox took the powder to ACT Pathology at Canberra Hospital at 12.35pm, where it was analysed by an unidentified microbiologist. After checking it under a microscope, she told Constable Cox it contained a live organism called "gram positive bacilli" and would take 48 hours to identify. Constable Cox said in her note she rang her superior to pass on this result, some time after 1.18pm, and before question time.

The documents do not show who advised Mr Downer and Mr Howard of the results, or what information was given to them. The Government has refused to say.

Mr Howard, Mr Downer, the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, and Senator Ellison have all failed to answer written questions on who came up with the term biological agent, generally used to describe diseases like anthrax, used in biological weapons to cause mass loss of life.
Moore's article puts the scare in the political context of the Shapelle Corby case.
The description of the powder as a biological agent torpedoed a wave of public anger directed at the Indonesian Government and its justice system that had been building for five days after a Bali court convicted Schapelle Corby of drug smuggling on May 27.

Before announcing the powder had tested positive as a biological agent, Mr Downer warned Parliament the public attacks on Indonesia would cause "a good deal of anti-Australian sentiment in Indonesia" and make it difficult to conclude agreements with Indonesia.

The Government's revelations that a biological agent had threatened the safety of Indonesians at the embassy sent shock waves through Corby's defence team. Her lawyers condemned it for damaging her chances of winning an appeal. After the public outcry over the biological agent, Corby never again enjoyed the public support she had previously received.
In other words, the scare blew Corby's case off the front pages and provided a very timely counterpoint to growing anti-Indonesian sentiment. The Howard government was facing a full-blown international crisis, with growing demands for action against Indonesia, and then - voila! - a little white envelope fixed the problem. How convenient.

You can just imagine the thinking in Canberra...
Downer: This is ridiculous! Some dumb bitch gets busted for smuggling dope into Bali, and suddenly everyone in Australia wants us to start bombing Jakarta! The TNI -

Ruddock: Well, she may not have actually been smuggling -

Downer: Every CEO in Australia is ringing my office, demanding we get this fixed immediately. Contracts are already collapsing. Do you know how many millions -

Howard: Relax, guys. These things have a way of working themselves out. True, the Corby story has had a lot of traction right now. But another story will come along soon, and public opinion will blow the other way again.

Downer: What do you mean?

Howard: Well, just imagine if, say, there was an earthquake in Indonesia tomorrow, for example. Or a terrorist attack, even better...

Downer and Ruddock: Hmmmn...
Seriously, though. What are the options? Who could have mailed that fake anthrax scare to the Indonesian Embassy?

a) Some pro-Corby nutcase from the public.
b) Howard's boys.
c) The Indonesians themselves.
d) Anyone else?

Admittedly, (a) seems the most likely scenario, while (c) seems most unlikely (unless it was a joint exercise). But Howard's boys had a clear motive and the timing was perfect for them. And it's not like ASIO needed to be heavily involved in such an operation. And here's the clincher: they are refusing to co-operate with enquiries. So for my money, it's (b).

The bottom line is this: Howard and Downer intentionally TERRORIZED the Australian people (and the staff of the Indonesian Embassy to boot). At best, they did it by knowingly distorting facts. At worst, they were personally involved in planning and executing an act of terrorism.

Book 'em, Danno.

UPDATE 1: Howard says his Government informed the public the white powder was probably not toxic by the next day. But that is the Bush spin in spades: lie, deny, retreat. By that time, the story is old. You got the headlines you wanted, and that's all that matters.

UPDATE 2: Another strange twist here. Corby's lawyer threatens to "tell all". He leaks that Corby's family refused an offer from the Australian Federal Police to DNA test the cannabis. And ABC says Corby met an Adelaide man, "in the pre-dawn darkness", on her way to Brisbane airport. Corby's family says that is all "crap". Funny how this stuff comes out right now, innit? Very strange timing... again.

What if Australian Customs has a whole lot to hide? What if public confidence in government truth-telling has collapsed and everyone has to make up their own mind? What if the media who brought us Saddam's WMDs on a plate can no longer be trusted?

This is John Howard's Australia.

UPDATE 3: Howard finds someone to blame:
Mr Howard said the term was used in an incident report prepared by the government's Protective Security Coordination Centre (PSCC) at 2.13pm that day.

"In media interviews later that day, when answering questions about the white powder incident, I was also quoting from the advice provided by the PSCC," Mr Howard said in a statement.
And simultaneously, Howard denies (conditionally, of course) that he ever said the flour was toxic:
"In Question Time that day (2 June), I advised that analysis of the substance indicated that in all probability it was not toxic.

"The AFP statement advised that testing has shown that the substance is not anthrax. However, it must be stressed these finding are interim and analysis is continuing."
This is deliberately misleading nonsense, because he is talking about the following day (2 June) when the scare-mongering had already been accomplished and the story was all over the newspaper and TV news headlines.

Read the story again: Downer gave details to parliament in June 1st, and Howard backed them up. The next day - under pressure - they backed down.

Lie, deny, retreat.