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Australia's Former Intelligence Chief Is in an Awkward Position Ahead of Sydney Siege Inquiry

Australia is conducting a complete review of law enforcement, intelligence, immigration, and justice following the Sydney Siege, but the role of one former intelligence chief in the government could cast a shadow over it.
December 18, 2014, 11:30pm
Photo by Mark Baker/AP

An intelligence chief's role in Australia's government could undermine the independence of an investigation into how the country's entire law enforcement, justice, immigration, and security apparatus dealt with the Sydney siege gunman who took 17 people hostage this week.

Between 2005 and 2009 Paul O'Sullivan was director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), which serves as Australia's domestic intelligence agency. He ended his tenure in the same year that Man Haron Monis, the man who carried out the 16-hour siege, dropped off Australia's terror watch list.

In fact, during his time as ASIO chief, O'Sullivan received a letter from Monis. In a note retrieved from his website, the self-styled cleric claims to have sent O'Sullivan a "report about terrorist activity in Australia." In a follow up letter, Monis claims to have received a reply from O'Sullivan's letter on August 24, 2007 that required follow up correspondence.

While announcing the government investigation — which will look at failures and potential reforms across all federal and state bodies that dealt with Monis in the years leading up to the hostage crisis — Prime Minister Tony Abbott specifically addressed the role of ASIO.

"[Monis] was being looked at by ASIO, as I understand it, back in about 2008 and 2009," said the prime minister. "When he had been sending profoundly offensive letters to the families of dead Australian soldiers. I don't know why he dropped off the watch list in those days — I really don't — and that's one of the reasons why we need this inquiry; so that we can find out why he dropped off the watch list and try to ensure that people only go off the watch list if they really are no longer a potential threat and, plainly, this individual was."

Today, O'Sullivan serves as the chief of staff to Australia's Attorney General George Brandis.

When contacted by VICE News and asked whether O'Sullivan will have access to non-public information regarding the inquiry and whether his role with the government presented a conflict of interest if he was called before the inquiry, the office of the attorney general's office responded with a statement:

"The review is not being conducted by the Attorney General or his office. The review is being co-chaired by the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minster and Cabinet and the secretary of the New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet, and how it is conducted is a matter for them."

They did not confirm or deny whether O'Sullivan in his role with the government would have any access to privileged information related to the inquiry.

What is clear, however, from the terms of reference for the inquiry is that the report is for the consideration of the Commonwealth Cabinet, of which the attorney general is a member.

This isn't the first time O'Sullivan has found himself in awkward positions when dealing with inquiries. In June 2005, prior to his appointment with ASIO, he was then-prime minister John Howard's chief of staff, and injected himself into one of the biggest scandals in Australian political history.

The Australia Wheat Board (AWB) — the government body that controlled all Australian wheat exports — was found by two separate inquiries between 2004 and 2006 to have been paying cash kickbacks to the regime of Saddam Hussein. In an independent investigation, the United Nations estimated AWB paid over $221.7 million dollars to the Iraqi government.

In the process they violated guidelines for the UN's Oil-for-Food program that allowed food exports through the international sanctions to Iraq and strictly forbade cash payments to the regime and its officials.

In 2006 when the UN's Vockler Inquiry into Oil-for-Food kickbacks was set to release its initial findings, the managing director of AWB, Andrew Lindberg met with O'Sullivan to let him know the inquiry would find that the organization had violated the UN program.

According to notes by AWB lawyer, Jim Cooper, O'Sullivan told Lindberg, "Keep your responses narrow, technical. Do not blame US, complain about process."

Cooper's notes from the meeting stressed, "what the government wants from the AWB says the prime minister's office is to keep narrow; be a small target."

Publicly, the prime minister had been urging AWB executives to fully cooperate with investigators. Howard said, "There had to be full transparency and full cooperation," in an interview with the ABC3 months earlier.

The opposition leader at the time, Kim Beazley, questioned why the Howard's office had seemingly taken sides with the AWB during the UN investigation.

"We have the evidence of June 2, recorded in the handwritten notes of the AWB executive. He had the prime minister's office," Beazley said in Parliament, referring to O'Sullivan. "This cooperative, collaborative government with the Volker inquiry — assisting them [AWB] with the preparation of evidence."

"They were incompetent and negligent," Beazely said of the government, "in the face of the worst federal scandal in living memory, in which $300 million went to the back kick of Saddam Hussein on their watch — $300 million subsequently turned by Saddam Hussein into war-making capacities and then used on Australian soldiers and others immediately after that."

When the notes from the meeting had been discovered during the 2006 Cole Inquiry, a royal commission called by the Australian government, O'Sullivan was already ASIO's director-general.

That year, Liberal Party Senator Nick Minchin, from the same party as Howard, announced no public servants would be allowed to answer questions about the AWB saga — effectively gagging O'Sullivan from answering any questions on the matter before senate committees.

It is worth noting that the current secretary of the prime minister's office, who will be one of two chairs to the inquiry into the Monis incident, is former public official Michael Tawley. He is a former advisor to John Howard, a former intelligence analyst who served as Australia's ambassador to the United States. In fact, Thawley was also mentioned during the AWB saga.

American Republican Senator Norm Coleman, a former Minnesota prosecutor who was pushing for a congressional inquiry into the AWB, told the _Sydney Morning Herald _in 2006 that in 2004, as ambassador to the US, Thawley had "unequivocally dismissed the allegations that AWB paid illegal kickbacks to the Hussein regime." Coleman also told the paper that "reports of AWB's illegal payments were simply the smear tactics of a rogue journalist and perhaps an insidious trick by a US wheat marketing association."

The Sydney Morning Herald reported, "By this time, Thawley had been arguing AWB's case in Washington for a year."

The inquiry into Monis and how the security services handled him will have to examine O'Sullivan, or at least ASIO, under his leadership.

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell