A senior Defence adviser has been sacked after refusing to write media briefings that supported claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Engineer and analyst Jane Errey was an adviser to former Chief Defence Scientist Dr Ian Chessell and wrote briefings for Defence Minister Robert Hill. Her job at Defence gave her access to secret intelligence on Iraq’s weaponry from the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessments.
Ms Errey claims that on the day before the Iraq war started, she was asked to write what she believed was “sexed-up” propaganda about Iraq’s capabilities.
The next day – March 20 last year – she went on holiday rather than write what she claimed would have been a misleading briefing.
But she was sacked last Monday, after more than nine years at Defence, on “performance grounds”.
“I felt like I was part of the propaganda machine. As a public servant I shouldn’t be expected to write propaganda,” she told the Sunday Herald Sun.
A superior had instructed her to compile media advice on WMDs for Senator Hill, advice Ms Errey said would have misled the public.
“Anything that I was doing with respect to the war was making me uncomfortable,” Ms Errey said. “Then to have to brief the minister and fundamentally give him – even though I didn’t write it – lines of propaganda that I didn’t believe with respect to the war was beyond what I was prepared to do. I wouldn’t lie or mislead the public.”
The next day, as the war began, she submitted a leave application. Ms Errey said that Dr Chessell suggested that, considering her views on the war, maybe she should not be working at Defence.
“He told me that he was prepared to sign the leave form, but he thought that I should consider whether working for Defence was the right job for me,” she said.
Ms Errey’s leave ran out and after taking sick leave, she applied unsuccessfully for leave without pay. Since July, she has worked at a community organisation.
As Dr Chessell’s senior executive adviser, Ms Errey – an electrical engineer – had access to classified reports on Iraq’s weapons programs.
“I had access to those reports. I used to read them before I’d take them in to Dr Chessell,” she said.
“There wasn’t enough substantiated evidence from the reports I was seeing to justify the war.”
Ms Errey is the second disillusioned official to go public with doubts about the Howard Government’s claim that Iraq’s weapons represented a threat. Andrew Wilkie, an analyst at the Office of National Assessments, quit in opposition to the war last year.
In July last year, Britain’s Blair Government was at the centre of a scandal after the suicide of Dr David Kelly, a senior defence scientist. Dr Kelly was publicly accused of leaking a story that claimed intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was “sexed up” to justify the war.
Ms Errey, 43, explained her views to a parliamentary committee, but her testimony was not mentioned in the committee report.
She said she was a highly regarded official within the Defence Science and Technology Organisation until her opposition to the war became known.
She worked on the Collins Class submarine project and in DSTO’s international division and had access to all the reports submitted to Dr Chessell. She also had the responsibility to brief him on issues of importance, including what Senator Hill needed to know.
“Something that was going to Chessell, a letter for him, I would read and generally draft a reply before I even showed it to him,” she said. “If I thought the minister needed to be aware of an issue, I’d draft the ministerial briefing.”
Ms Errey said there was debate in Dr Chessell’s office in the months before the war over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
“His staff were the weapons inspectors, part of Hans Blix’s UN team,” she said. “So Chessell had a duty of care because his staff were the inspectors.
“The UN team was saying ‘We haven’t found any WMDs. Let us finish our job’. That was different advice to what the intelligence reports were saying.
“The Government was saying, ‘Look, the Americans are right and it’s time to go in’. I didn’t agree.”
Ms Errey received a letter from Defence on Monday that terminated her employment “on performance grounds”. But she said: “The real reason is I took a stand against the war. If I hadn’t taken that stand, I’m sure I would have been given leave without pay.”
At the start of the war, Mr Howard said: “We are determined to join other countries to deprive Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, its chemical and biological weapons.”
A spokeswoman for Senator Hill said: “Ms Errey’s case was a matter for the Defence Department and the Public Service Act.”
Courtesy Rowena Thursby