In blowing the whistle on the Government’s use of intelligence to justify war in Iraq, Andrew Wilkie joins a group of people who risk everything to speak out. It’s been anything but easy, he tells Caroline Overington.
Whistleblowers can pay dearly for doing the right thing. Dr David Kelly, the British weapons expert who told the BBC that intelligence files were doctored in the run up to the war in Iraq, was found dead last week, apparently having committed suicide. Others have lost their homes and their livelihoods.
The former Australian Office of National Assessments (ONA) operative, Andrew Wilkie, knows what such intense pressure feels like. He is standing in an office building in Washington, flanked by a retired, 25-year veteran of the CIA, and a Democrat who wants to run for President against George W. Bush. Dressed in a blue suit, he is drenched in sweat and jangling with nerves.
Before him, all this Tamworth-born, former soldier can see is a forest of microphones and cameras, and a room full of American journalists, pens poised over notebooks, who have come to hear Wilkie explain why he thinks the war in Iraq was unethical and unjust.
“Frankly,” he said later, “I find this gut-wrenching. I don’t like speaking in front of crowds. I don’t find it easy speaking to the media. I’m not trained to do it, and I dont really like it.”
Yet, for four months, Wilkie – who joined the army more than 20 years ago, when he was just 19 – has done not much besides speak, under hot lights and in confronting circumstances, to journalists, politicians and even to a British parliamentary inquiry, on the issue that currently dominates international debate: whether the governments of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard deliberately manipulated top-secret intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq, to justify the war there.
Wilkie was shocked at Kelly’s death. “The death of anyone is a tragedy … it’s a shocking development,” he said.
Wilkie, 41, thrust himself willingly into his current situation when he resigned from the ONA on March 11, saying he could not, in good conscience, keep working there while the Howard Government was using ONA’s intelligence to argue that Saddam Hussein posed such a threat to the rest of the world that he needed to be removed by force.
On the day he resigned, Wilkie said he didnt believe there was any evidence to justify an attack on Iraq. Now the war is over, and many people are wondering why the US has not found any of the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq allegedly possessed, Wilkie should be looking – and feeling – like a champion whistleblower, one who may be close to winning the strategic and moral arguments over the war in Iraq. But he doesn’t feel like a winner at all.
“I think I’m holding up pretty well, no more than that,” he says. “Its been tough, this four months.”
When he approached Channel Nine journalist Laurie Oakes to tell him he planned to resign from the ONA and publicly denounce Howard’s justification for war in Iraq, he says Oakes told him there would be a couple of days of intense media interest then it would die off and he could get on with his life.
“I certainly didn’t expect that four months later I would be standing here in Washington.”
Wiping sweat from his brow, he continues: “This is hard work for me. Some people have criticised me for somehow enjoying this. The bottom line is I’m exhausted. I haven’t had a chance to get a job. I don’t know what prospects there are. I want to get on with my life, but I don’t have that opportunity.”
Wilkie’s campaign has so far taken him from Canberra to London and now to Washington. He says he is always on edge, because there are cameras wherever he goes, and also because he thinks the Australian Government is trying to undermine him, by questioning his credibility, and his mental stability.
“Its had a couple of ugly dimensions,” Wilkie says. “The day after I resigned, somebody in the PM’s office leaked to the media that I am having family problems, and that I was mentally unstable.
“Events were moving pretty quickly, but I clearly remember that a guy called me, around midday, and said he was from the Prime Ministers office, and he talked to me for about half an hour, very apologetic, saying that Howard was personally very sorry that this story had been leaked by a junior person on his staff.
“They told me that they would retract the story, and to its credit, the press did not follow the story or ask me about it. My wife and I are separated, but I don’t think that means I’m crazy, and the only reason I’m explaining it now is because I don’t want people to think that any of it is true. But that’s the kind of thing that has been happening to me.”
There is no doubt that Wilkie annoys the Howard Government, and why wouldn’t he? After all, he is essentially accusing the PM of taking part in a conspiracy to hoodwink his own citizens into believing that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled a vast arsenal of the world’s most hideous weapons so that Australian troops could be sent to Iraq to support Bushs war. Howard has dismissed this claim, saying Wilkie has no idea what the Government knew, since he worked at ONA for less than three years, mostly on “illegal immigration” issues.
Wilkies former boss, the director-general of ONA, Kim Jones, has also said that Wilkies work did not involve Iraq. And although Wilkie himself admits that he was mostly involved with “terrorism and migration issues he also worked on weapons of mass destruction.
“I was on call to work on any war that came along, and I was on call to work on Iraq, and that means I had access to the Iraq data-base.”
In other words, Wilkie rejects claims that he is being used by doves and those who are anti-Howard. He says he knows what he is talking about, and others seem to believe him.
For example, Wilkie was invited to Washington DC by Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group of mostly former CIA agents. The former agents have many contacts in US intelligence agencies who have also said that the evidence against Iraq was “cooked” to produce a “a policy and intelligence fiasco of monumental proportions”.
Wilkie says he also still has friends among ONAs ranks, “people who are very supportive of me, personally, who still socialise with me. But there are a range of views in the agency. Some people are very supportive of the war and anti-me, right through to anti-war, and supportive of me.
“I suppose that’s unsurprising, because that’s the view in the wider community as well.”
Which is why Wilkie will not give up his campaign to expose what he says is the truth about the war: that Australia was led into a pre-emptive strike on a sovereign nation under false pretences.
“I have found that I am speaking for other people, not just for myself,” he says. “There are people who support me, who say I am articulating their concerns. This whole business is very hard for me, but I feel like I can’t give it up. I have an obligation to them, to follow it through.”
In the 2010 federal election, independent candidate Andrew Wilkie grabbed headlines after winning the seat of Denison, and with it a key role in deciding who would form the next government of Australia. Before he was a politician, however, Wilkie was Australia s most talked-about whistleblower. In March 2003, Wilkie resigned from Australia’s peak intelligence agency in protest over the looming war in Iraq. He was the only serving intelligence officer from the coalition of the willing – the US, the UK and Australia – to do so, and his dramatic move was reported throughout the world.
Wilkie’s act of conscience put him on a collision course with the Australian government. Why was he willing to risk his career and reputation to tell the truth? What happened when he decided to take a stand? In Axis of Deceit, Wilkie tells his story. He exposes how governments skewed, spun and fabricated intelligence advice. And he offers a rare glimpse into the world of international intelligence and life as a spook. With a brand-new preface, this is the fascinating inside story of a man now set to play a pivotal role in our public life. He subsequently ran against Prime Minister John Howard at the 2004 federal election and wrote a successful account of his experience, Axis of Deceit.
Prior to his work in ONA Andrew served in the Army where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He has also worked in senior management roles with the American defence contractor Raytheon and run a small business with his then wife. At the 2010 Tasmanian State election Andrew came within 315 votes of being elected as an independent when he finished as the fifth highest vote-getter in the Denison electorate and in the top 25 in the state (five Members are elected in each of Tasmania’s five electorates).
Andrew again ran as an independent in Denison at the 2010 federal election where he caused a major upset by taking the previously safe seat from the ALP in one of the biggest swings seen at the election. Afterwards he decided to provide certainty of supply and confidence to the ALP, making him one of the four cross-benchers giving government to the Labor Party and re-installing Julia Gillard as Prime Minister.
Beyond this minimalist support Andrew remained fiercely independent: considering all bills and motions on their merit and sometimes supporting the Government, and sometimes the Opposition. On 21 January 2012 Andrew withdrew his support for the Labor Government after it broke its agreement he had signed with Julia Gillard to implement mandatory pre-commitment on all poker machines by 2014.
Andrew was re-elected with an increased margin in 2013, and then again in 2016, and continues to be active across a range of issues including health, education and science, and jobs, as well as the issues that the major parties ignore including animal welfare, gambling reform, asylum seekers, foreign and security policy and climate change. Andrew has served on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and was the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform. Andrew’s qualifications include a Bachelor of Arts, Graduate Diploma of Management and Graduate Diploma of Defence Studies.
Awards Andrew has received include the Australian Intelligence Community Medallion (twice), Australia Day Achievement Medallion, UN Association of Australia Whistleblower Award, Australian Plaintiff Lawyers Association Civil Justice Award and Free Speech Victoria Voltaire Award. Andrew is 56 years old and lives in the Denison electorate in South Hobart. He has two young daughters, Olive and Rose.