weapons expert's fight to warn pm

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    Weapons expert's fight to warn PM
    By Tom Allard
    September 25, 2004

    War not the answer, letter told Howard
    Australia's leading expert on weapons of mass destruction defied political and bureaucratic barriers to warn the Prime Minister that his case for war against Iraq was based on falsehoods and would make Australia a bigger terrorist target.

    Bob Mathews, a 35-year veteran of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, wrote to John Howard as a private citizen three days before he committed Australia to the war - a last, desperate act after the expert's superiors repeatedly blocked him from expressing his views.

    Dr Mathews was a principal research scientist for weapons of mass destruction and arms control at the organisation when he wrote the letter and has an esteemed international reputation in WMD and counter-terrorism.

    The Herald has obtained a copy of Dr Mathews's letter and been appraised of what one colleague described as his "disgraceful" treatment both before and after it was sent to Mr Howard.

    His actions were investigated, his travel was curtailed and charges were contemplated.

    Dr Mathews's lengthy critique called on Mr Howard to reconsider his position and take action to dissuade the US from its path. In the letter, he said:

     There was not even circumstantial evidence to back the view that Saddam Hussein had substantial stockpiles of usable WMD.

     If he did have WMD, and if Iraq were invaded, there was a "high probability" they would be passed on to terrorists. He said there was no chance of their falling into al-Qaeda's hands while Saddam remained in power.

     Australia would "face an increased risk of terrorist acts" if it joined the invasion, which was a "serious distraction to the fight against terrorism".

     Australia would have greater difficulties dealing with South-East Asian nations in combating terrorism due to the Iraq war.

     The United Nations must be given more time for inspections, and was an important curb on Saddam's WMD ambitions.

    "There are no reasons at the present time to justify supporting a US-led invasion of Iraq," Dr Mathews told Mr Howard, urging him to make a last-ditch effort to persuade the Americans to abandon their war plans.

    Dr Mathews sent his letter to Mr Howard on March 17 last year, three days before the Prime Minister formally announced Australia was at war.

    In his televised address, Mr Howard said "the reason above all others" for the Iraq war was the threat posed by terrorists with WMD. "Far from our action in Iraq increasing the terrorist threat, it will, by stopping the spread of chemical and biological weapons, make it less likely that a devastating terrorist attack will be carried out against Australia," the Prime Minister said.

    As he directly contradicted Dr Mathews's advice on several fronts, Mr Howard and his office were already aware of the contents of the letter. Indeed, his office - and the Minister for Defence, Robert Hill - had already begun a furious damage-control plan to discredit Dr Mathews.

    Mr Howard's spokesman did not respond to calls from the Herald yesterday.

    Jane Errey, the assistant to the then chief defence scientist, Ian Chessell, was asked to deliver a brief to Senator Hill that he would use as "talking points" should the media get hold of the story. That brief was undertaken the day before war was declared, she said.

    She immediately took leave because she did not want to be associated with false "propaganda" that would have misled the public.

    Dr Mathews wrote the letter to Mr Howard in a personal capacity because senior figures in his organisation had for months thwarted his attempts to relay his concerns up the chain of command.

    Dr Mathews faced reprisals after he sent the letter, including having his top-secret security clearance frozen while he was investigated. His travel abroad was restricted while senior Government advisers considered prosecuting him for passing on classified material.

    "They treated him appallingly," a former colleague said.

    Dr Mathews, who has been overseas and could not be contacted, remains at the organisation. Friends say he faced a distressing decision about whether to "pull the pin or stay".

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