What do you expect when graduating with a science degree? To disarm militia in war-torn Mogadishu? To search out Iraq’s elusive weapons of mass destruction? Do you wonder what a spy does?
Join former Australian intelligence officer and author Rod Barton in conversation with ABC journalist and author Michael Brissenden, as Rod discusses his new memoir, The Life of a Spy.
Rod Barton is a former Australian intelligence officer. After starting his career with the Australian Government as a junior scientist, he led an extraordinary life of espionage, working with the UN and several spy agencies, searching for illegal weapons and Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.
21 06 08 - The Life of a Spy
*Speakers: Andrew Sergeant (A), Michael Brissenden (M), Rod Barton (R)
A: Hello everyone and thanks for coming out on this rather chilly Canberra evening. My name is Andrew Sergeant and I’m the Coordinator of Special Collections Reference here at the Library in the Reader Services team and I also look after the Library’s community of advanced researchers, the Petherick readers, if some of you have heard of those.
After a year of social distancing, only recently retuning to public events, it’s a pleasure for us at the Library to welcome you to this very special conversation between Rod Barton, author of The Life of a Spy, and Michael Brissenden, respected ABC journalist and author himself.
One of the requirements of our new COVID normal is that we all need to check in to the Library using the check-in Canberra app so if you haven’t done so can I ask you to pop out now and do it quickly, please? If you need some assistance you can talk to the security guard in the foyer. The other thing I would ask you to do at the moment too is turn any phones to silent.
We're privileged to be here in this classic building opened 53 years ago now to learn more about the international politics and intrigue of recent decades. It is important, though, to remember that there is a far longer history of the land on which we gather. So, I’d like to begin by acknowledging Australia’s first nations people, the first Australians as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give respect to their elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I recognise the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people on whose land this city now sits and for any first nations colleagues or visitors here tonight, welcome.
Now for many of us our introduction to what we see as the exciting and dangerous world inhabited by spies might be a James Bond movie. Connery’s still my favourite. Or The Bourne Identity, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Yet living in Canberra we realise that many government policies and weighty decisions are shaped by covertly gathered information, that men and women who look just like us go quietly about ferreting out hidden facts. Some just operate from an office for their whole career, others are given opportunities to travel, research and work in exotic and dangerous places far from the popular tourist routes.
Rod Barton is one of those who made the most of the travel opportunities offered him. In 1971 Rod joined the Department of Defence as a junior scientist and began his journey towards war-torn Mogadishu, UN weapons inspection in Baghdad and negotiate a fraught and dangerous path through Europe and the Middle East during a decade of intense international conflict.
Rod deposited his research and source material associated with his first book, The Weapons Detective, the inside story of Australia’s top weapons inspector, in the National Library’s Manuscripts Collection back in 2006. While part of this collection remains restricted for a few years yet the papers form an important primary resource for a very challenging pivotal period in Australian and international history.
Rod’s newest book, The Life of a Spy, takes a broader sweep of his life, how he had acquired and honed the skills that equipped him to search for weapons of mass destruction, how he negotiated the difficulties encountered when he and his team couldn’t find those weapons and how did he manage to survive to be with us here tonight? Who better to shed a little light on the murky world of international intrigue than an operator who managed to successfully negotiate this perilous work and has survived to tell the tale?
So, to walk us right through the murky world of international intrigue we’re very pleased to be joined this evening by Walkley Award-winning ABC journalist, Michael Brissenden. Michael’s worked as a political journalist and foreign correspondent for more than 30 years with a keen interest in defence and national security. He’s very well qualified to explore with Rod the challenges and achievements of Rod’s incredible career and life. So please join me in welcoming Rod Barton and Michael Brissenden to chat about Life as a Spy.
M: Well thank you all for coming, it’s a pretty good crowd for a Tuesday night in Canberra. I’ll just start, the relationship between journalists and intelligence is sometimes a challenging one. We spend a lot of our lives as journalists trying to prise information out of intelligence sources but often actually the two of us are sort of doing the same job in a weird sort of way, we’re trying to understand what’s really going on and try to get to the truth of things and reporting obviously to different bosses. I mean obviously in the case of an intelligence agent you're reporting to your bureaucracy and your political masters and our job is to report to the broader public.
Of course, the work as was mentioned, the work of an intelligence agent is a little different from George Smiley although John Le Carre probably got closer than many others given his insider information. I’m not sure if you’ve ever thought of writing fiction but perhaps that’s something you might consider.
In Rod’s book we do get a real sense of the methodical work the agencies do and the problem-solving and the creativity that’s required, we get a little of the excitement and certainly quite a lot of the frustration. So perhaps I’d just like to start by asking why did you decide to write the book?
R: Well it’s a very good question. After the first book I had a lot of anecdotes which I really couldn’t put in that one. Some of them are tense situations, some of them are humorous situations but they didn’t follow the theme of Iraq and what was going on at the time. The first book was written in 2006 shortly after the 2003 Iraq war and it mainly concentrated on those political events but I had all these other stories and I used to recall these at dinner parties and these sort of things, people said you should write a book about these. So, I thought well how do I write a book about all these odd stories I have? So I melded them together and put it in with my life's work but I also wanted to talk about some of the political events as well but I wanted to make it very, very readable and the stories I have, the book, if any of you have read it or when you do read it, it’s a very conversational style. I wrote it to be entertaining as much as anything else but with some messages in but not so heavy that you’re going to turn off. It’s always a dilemma of trying to get some of those messages to the general public and so that is partly why I came to write this book.
M: Which is sort of interesting because as I was saying I mean our job as journalists is to get out information to the public, your job is not really to do that at all so I mean presumably you signed the Government Secrets Act at some point. I mean, how do you wrestle with that dilemma?
R: Well it is a bit of a dilemma and as I was going to say in the foreword, but you’re not allowed to have that if it’s - a nonfiction book has an author’s note in, not a foreword. I’m sure you’re all aware of that but I wasn’t but it’s still a foreword. I said in that that I couldn’t reveal everything, there are things I still can’t reveal today, particularly about sources of information and a few other things and special operations, things like that. Maybe I’ll write that book when I’m 99 because I couldn’t put them into this book but then there are a lot of things that are in a grey area, can I reveal this or not reveal it? Sometimes I have to write it in such a way where I told the essence of the story without revealing things like sources or other very sensitive matters, but it was a bit of a wrestle.
I do say at the beginning there though that those details, things like sources and special op, only if you’re a foreign intelligence agent would you be really interested in that detail, no-one else would be.
M: I mean, because there is quite a lot of detail about the relationship with different intelligence agencies, for instance, within your relationship with the CIA, with the British. Well there are probably two questions here, how different is the way you operate, Australian intelligence operates? I mean obviously we have a very close relationship with these people. This is the Five Eyes agreement where we share a lot of information but there’s also interesting – I noted interestingly in the book there’s quite a lot that you’re actually kept out of particularly from American areas.
R: Yes, it is a very close working relationship, obviously, the Five Eyes agreement and I don’t want to go too much into that but we do share a lot of information, of course, with the US and it’s very valuable, and the UK and the others. It is very valuable to Australia to have this information and to have this very close relationship, but we don’t share everything. They don’t give us everything and we don’t give them everything either. We share things of common interest and if we ask maybe they’ll give us a bit more but there is still this difficulty of sharing everything and I certainly noted this when I was working with the CIA in this operation called Gateway in Bahrain where I was assured that I was going to be fully integrated with the US and they gave me an office in the old US Embassy but it was an office outside of everything else and all the CIA people were over there and there was a door between which I could never go through and in fact I never had any real access to their intelligence. Even though we shared everything they had their own secrets and they would not let me through this door.
In the book of course it also occurs later as you will see post the 2003 war -
M: Yes, quite a lot in Iraq and given that we were members of the coalition of the willing and we had a very, very close relationship in that war. That’s interesting.
R: It surprised me, and I have to say to some degree it surprised my boss in the Defence Intelligence Organisation that after being promised to be fully integrated we weren’t.
M: Well obviously we’ll talk about Iraq a little later but why did you want to be a spy?
R: I mean when I was a kid every kid is interested in spies, but I never really had an ambition to be one, it came about by accident and by sheer accident, really. I was working in the public service here, actually in the Patents Office and as interesting as that is, I wanted something a bit different and there was a promotion offered in the Defence Department and I thought this looks interesting. They wanted a scientist; I was a scientist and so I thought I’ll apply, and I applied. I had no idea what the job was about. They sent a duty statement out as always and I read it and I still had no idea what the job was about, it was so vague. So, I turned up in the Defence Department for an interview, I got the interview. I went to a special building, Building L it was called in those days, no indication it was anything to do with intelligence. I had another security pass, I had now two security passes on me. Escorted down a corridor, shown to a door which was actually a steel vault door, shown inside. It was a windowless steel vault. The door opened and the door closed behind me and I thought what the heck is this?
There was one person sitting behind a desk and a woman sitting next to him taking notes and he said “there’s been a terrible mistake”. I thought what on earth is all this about? He said “we sent out the wrong duty statement, here is the correct one” and slowly he slid across the desk for me to read and he wouldn’t let go of it and I could see it was stamped confidential in red on the top and in those days it was ‘Joint Intelligence Organisation’. I could see that was written on the top and I was desperately trying to read all of this and then he pulled it back. But that was the first real indication that I had applied for a job in the intelligence world and somehow, I got the job, but it was purely accidental. But I have to say I can’t imagine doing anything else in my life, it seemed to be the perfect career for me. Even though I was a scientist it seemed to be the perfect career for me.
M: One of the interesting things I learnt reading the book about the trade craft is you had to learn what time to turn up for dinner, where the knives and forks were, which fork to use properly, etiquette was pretty important.
R: Well that was a different part of my career but that was true. I was selected as the Defence Intelligence Liaison Officer, a DILO, Australian Defence Intelligence Liaison Officer for London so before I went to London I had to go through some training which very kindly our colleagues in DFAT put me through. There was other bits of training on the intelligence side as well and one of the things that we were trained in is etiquette and which knife to use and which fork to use and also the questions like well what time would you turn up to dinner? Well I thought that’s obvious, if it’s 7:00 you turn up at 7:00. Oh no, it’s not that simple. In England it’s polite to turn up slightly late so your host and hostess have time to do the last preparations and get the melon fork in the right place. So that’s the sort of thing.
M: Something you’ve carried with you for the rest of your life, no doubt.
R: It was quite useful but limited.
M: We were having a chat before and one of the things you mentioned was that one of the areas you're most proud of the work that you did was in Somalia. I wonder if you can talk about the importance of that work. Not very many people, particularly in Australia, know much about Somalia or think much about any of our engagements there and what we might have done there.
R: Yes, I was particularly pleased to go to Somalia but again it was one of these things I was surprised about. I’d been working – and we’ll come to this later, of course – I’d been in Iraq as a weapons inspector in Iraq doing disarmament-type stuff, of course. One day I got a phone call from United Nations saying we want someone to go to Somalia to do disarmament. I said, “well I know about weapons and mass destruction, nuclear weapons, chemical, biological weapons, I know all about those but I don’t know anything about AK47s or militias or anything like that”. I said “why?” She sold me with the old line, “we think you can make a difference”.
So sure, enough I said alright, I’ll go along, and I became the Director of Disarmament and Demobilisation and I added an R on the end, DD and Reintegration. The reason I added an R on the end is its all very well disarming militia and demobilising them, of course, but then what do you do? You have to reintegrate that into society and that was my policy. No-one told me how to do the job, the UN clearly didn’t have anybody with any skill in this area at that time, it’s changed now, and they have lots of training courses and there’s a 1,000-page manual on it now. There was nothing when I went, and I had to make it up as I went along. It was probably about the worst time to go to Somalia. It was just before the event Black Hawk Down, some of you may have heard of that event and they made a film about it. It's sometimes referred to as the battle of Mogadishu where something like 17 or 19 Americans were killed and no-one mentions the Somalis but there were about 1,000 Somalis killed on that day.
I was working to disarm the very militias that killed these Americans. But I did have some success there and I worked not in Mogadishu, I went out in the bush. I went to Baidoa and there to cut a long story short – must read the book – cut a long story short I started to build a farm; I built a farm. The whole idea is the militia men would come in, they would hand in their weapons, they’d get a certificate for that and their certificate gave them certain rights and privileges in the town. In return for surrendering their weapons we would train them in farming techniques, how to look after chickens, how to grow vegetables. I didn’t know whether this would work but it was almost too successful, everyone wanted to come in, especially when they were out from the politics of Mogadishu, out in the bush and there were something like 3,000 militia men in that area and we could only take – well initially we could only take about 150 on the farm. So, they had to decide amongst themselves who was going to come into work and the fact that it actually worked.
I remember talking to one of the American representatives there and they said no, this would never work. What you have to do is just buy the guns, that’s easy and if you buy the guns, and we’ll provide the money, we’ll give you $100 for every gun you get in and then that solves the problem. For $100 they’ll hand in these weapons. Yeah but I said what happens then? What do they do with $100? Go buy more ammunition for another gun they got tucked away somewhere? What happens when the $100 is distributed through their extended family and they’ve got nothing? They'll join another militia, so you have to do something different, you have to reintegrate them and give them a new life.
M: So, do you know if that program is still running or -
R: Well it ran – that was the other thing the Americans were saying and even some of the members in the UN were saying, I said the farm won’t belong to the United Nations, the farm will belong to the Somalis, to the local community, to the elders. They will have responsibility for the farm, the farm will generate money because we’ll be producing things. They also drilled a well for water. It’s a drought area, really or a desert area when we found water with a bit of help from my Indian friends, the Indian army was there and they helped locate places where we could drill for water and you can sell the water to the locals. So, the money that’s generated will go back into the community and help run the farm. But I was told no, you can’t give the farm to the Somalis, they will just tear everything apart. They didn’t understand the Somalis, they had a lot of pride, you have to understand the people. I said no, that won’t happen, and it didn’t happen and even after the UN pulled out of Somalia the farm continued to run and it was a success.
I only did it as a pilot scheme because one farm doesn’t solve all the problems and I had various little schemes all ‘around the place that I was going to run but it was quite a success. They gave up their weapons, they got the training and the farm continued for several years after the UN pulled out and it would still be running today - and it is running actually in another form today – it would still be running today except the militias in Mogadishu got wind of this farm and thought oh, here’s something we can - we’ve got the weapons, we’ll go out and we’ll raid the farm and they pulled out the pipes and they pulled out everything they could get hold of, the pumps and everything else. The manager I appointed, a senior Somali who actually had a degree in agriculture from a university in the US, he got shot in the process but fortunately survived, he got shot in the shoulder and they managed to get him out into Kenya. So the farm disappeared for a while but now it’s in Baidoa and it’s still run by the locals but it’s not the same purpose as it was when I was there.
M: Of course, if I remember rightly that’s where you had a price put on your head which was only $100 which must have miffed you somewhat.
R: Well yes, when they established this Division of Disarmament and Demobilisation, I had no staff. They just created this division. Someone in New York said we should have someone to do this. I’d gone there for that purpose but when I went there there wasn’t such a division so suddenly, they establish it. I had no staff, I didn’t even have a desk or a chair, I had nothing, so I had to get all of that. The staff I got came from other people working in the UN in Somalia and I must say staff that others didn’t want but they were good for my purpose, they were and they actually came from the political division so I got a retired Egyptian General, General Mohammed and he was great. He liked smoking Cuban cigars and lying back a lot, but he was good because of course he spoke Arabic and he had a certain presence about him. I had a former Sudanese Ambassador who’d fallen out with the government in Sudan. He was the encyclopaedia of diplomacy. I say of him in the book, he was a bit like C3PO from Star Wars. He knew everything about diplomacy, and he could - I said just call me Rod. Oh, he could never call me Rod, he always had to call me Mr Rod.
But anyway, just getting back to - but he was good because he’d go out and he picked up bits of intelligence here and there and I used him for that purpose as well. He came in one day and said, “Mr Rod, you have to be very careful”. I said, “oh yes, I’m always careful”. He said, “a price is on your head”. I said “oh” then he went on – and then I thought oh I should ask what militia has put a price on my head because there were several militias I was trying to disarm. That should have been my first question but like all of you I wanted to ask how much so I thought – in my mind I thought how much is my life really worth? I thought well $100,000 would be a fair amount but this is Somalia so maybe $10,000, maybe even a bit less. I got a shock when I asked him, and he said $100.
M: Life is cheap.
R: A hundred dollars and that was then, about a year’s salary for Somalia. Not too bad.
M: Let’s talk about Iraq now because that of course is where your work is most well known.
M: The interesting thing in the book as well, there were two Iraq – obviously there were two Iraq periods. There was the early ‘90s period where you were in Canberra, I think, and advised Bob Hawke the Iraqis were a long way from having a nuclear capability and then you actually realised they were often closer than that. How close was Iraq in the early ‘90s -?
R: To getting a nuclear weapon.
M: To getting a nuclear weapon?
R: Well a lot, lot further than we’d thought, and the CIA had thought, not just us. We didn’t really know anything about their nuclear program as it turned out, their nuclear weapons program. Naturally we started looking at their research program and what they were doing there, and they were doing some suspicious things but there was nothing really – we knew that it hadn’t gone that far. I mean they’d bought reactors from France and they had one from Russia and they could make a little tiny bit of plutonium and they couldn’t really enrich uranium although they were looking at doing that but you need quite a few kilos and they couldn’t really do any of that in any great quantity. So, we knew they weren’t very far advanced but that’s because we were so focused on that research establishment at Tuwaitha which I’ve been to quite a number of times.
What was happening of course is that they decided to build a facility elsewhere and they decided to use what would be described even then as a primitive technology to enrich uranium at this other facility. It was the same process, basically, that they used in the Manhattan program for the first nuclear weapon that the United States had built. Partly they did that because they knew they could do it and the guy who was put in charge didn’t want to fail. In Iraq you must not fail, failure might mean death so he had to succeed and also they had all the documentation from the Manhattan program provided to them by the Untied States so they knew what to do and they had some good scientists. So, they knew what to do -
M: Did they have an intent to do it? I mean did they -
R: Oh absolutely, absolutely. They intended to build a nuclear bomb and in fact we know that because they had another facility which we knew nothing about and we never – see in the first Gulf War lots of these facilities like Tuwaitha, the research establishment, was heavily bombed, the reactors were flattened. But this other facility I mentioned that was enriching uranium was barely touched. They did drop a few bombs on it because they thought it might be some industrial facility that might help the war. The Americans didn’t know what it was, and I spoke to the analyst who had decided on where to bomb.
But there was also another facility that they had to do research into building – how do you build a bomb? How do you design a bomb? They’d got very far advanced in the design of a nuclear bomb to the extent that once they got the enriched uranium, they could have made a bomb very, very quickly. They’d done all the basic research, the bomb, it was an implosion device. I won’t go into all the technical detail, but it was an implosion device, they’d done all that preliminary work of implosion, detonators, all of this sort of stuff. All they wanted was the enriched uranium.
M: Presumably in the intelligence community that was fairly alarming, right?
R: Absolutely stunned us and I might add that it was a factor when we came to the 2003 war. We’d missed all that, the Americans had missed it, we had missed it and partly through our own arrogance. We weren’t looking for anything as primitive as this old technology on the Manhattan program, we were looking at things like advanced centrifuges and we knew they’d been getting tubes to make centrifuges that would spin at very high RPM and we’d seen that. We’d seen that the Germans had helped them, and they’d had carbon fibre tubes built and they’d already built a few but this was all experimental at that stage and they’d done that at Tuwaitha.
So, we were looking at that and thinking oh well they’re 20 years away but through our arrogance, our western arrogance, we didn’t think anyone would use this old technology which was very energy expensive. You require your own power station to run this technology like the Manhattan program and that’s exactly what they did, they built a power station, a gas-fired power station about 3km from the plant so we wouldn’t see it and they buried all the wires, which is very unusual in Iraq or even anywhere, that ran into the enrichment plant.
When we uncovered all of this, we found that they’d already enriched several kilograms of uranium to the right level for a bomb. You need at least 25kg, so they were on their way and they were still working on it. Some of my colleagues at Los Alamos said well probably they could have got it within a year, two years.
M: It was the first war that disrupted that, was it?
M: Was the first war that disrupted that?
M: I mean that basically blew all that out.
R: Well it didn’t blow it out because as I said we didn’t know about it so we didn’t bomb it but we eventually – not so much myself but we – in fact it was the International Atomic Energy Agency but I was also involved in some of the earlier stages when we had the documentation and that’s described in the book, we realised how far advanced they were and we realised they had designed a bomb ‘cause we got the documentation before we actually found the facilities. So, we knew how far they were and of course then the destruction of all of this came along as required under the UN Security Council resolution.
Iraq didn’t declare any of this, in fact they tried to hide it from us, they tried to remove things from it. These things require giant magnets and the magnets they built were 60 tonnes in weight and you require a whole pile of them. It was bigger than the Manhattan program, and then put them on trucks and tried to move them out. But we discovered some of these things as they were moving them out so we eventually got everything and destroyed everything or at least the Iraqis did under our supervision which was what was required under the resolution.
M: Then of course in Iraq the focus shifted to biological weapons later on. You joined with Hans Blix and that UN operation. I wonder what the pressure was like at that time because we all saw it all the time, we kept reporting it all the time that there seemed to be a lot of pressure on Hans Blix and the team, coming from the Americans in particular, people wanting outcomes and you’re basically there trying to do your job. I just wonder what it was like inside that team at that time.
R: Are you referring to the earlier -
M: Yeah, the earlier -
R: The earlier period when we were uncovering the biological weapons program. That wasn’t actually under Hans Blix. Hans Blix came along later.
M: Alright, my mistake.
R: Just prior to the 2003 war. He was appointed in 2001 -
M: So that was the point there were a lot of visits at that time, I recall, a lot of missions to Iraq. There was a lot of pressure on him.
R: Well no, let me explain.
R: With the biological program Iraq – after the 1991 Gulf War Iraq had to surrender all its weapons of mass destruction and as I said with the nuclear program, they denied they had it but eventually that was uncovered. The chemical program, we already knew a lot about because they’d used chemical weapons against Iran and that had been heavily bombed and that was the first inspection that went on.
The biological program we knew nothing about either and Iraq didn’t declare it as they were required to do and so it took us almost – well I suppose four years. I have to say here that the UN didn’t do a proper investigation to begin with but eventually they did and this is when as I referred to in the book the gang of four came together, myself, two Brits and an American and we came together and we had a concerted effort in hunting down whether they had a biological weapons program or not. That hunt for those weapons started in ’94. That was three years after the first Gulf War and there was a lot of pressure on us then from the Security Council to either find it or give Iraq a clean bill of health. Even I wasn’t sure whether they’d had a biological program but eventually bit by bit we uncovered it and that’s a story in itself but bit by bit we uncovered this program using basically intelligence techniques. We found exactly what they’d done and eventually Iraq started to admit to these things.
So, then we destroyed it or had it destroyed by the Iraqis under our supervision and flattened the whole place. They had a whole facility which never had been bombed because we didn’t know what it was, never been bombed and they’d made anthrax there and other biological agents and that was that. So that was leading up – Iraq eventually had had enough of us, the biological weapons, the gang of four and everybody else and it came to a head in ’98 and they decided not to have any more inspectors in the country. The only reason they tolerated us in the first place ‘cause of the sanctions and they said if we cooperate the sanctions will be lifted and of course they never entirely fully cooperated, they never fully gave us all the information. I remember one General said to me you’ll never lift the sanctions no matter what we say. That was about the point when they said no more inspections, we’re not having this, so they kicked us out and so from the end of ’98 onwards there were no inspections.
Hans Blix was appointed in 2001 so there’d been no inspections for a few years by the time he got into the job and they wouldn’t allow us back in. He set up a new inspection regime, but we couldn’t go into Iraq until just before the Iraq war in 2003.
M: Look, I’m aware that people want to ask some questions soon, so I’ve just got a couple of quick ones before we get to that. So, after the war of course then the focus turned to weapons of mass destruction and looking for justification for the war. Obviously, there was a lot of pressure as comes through quite strongly in the book from the Americans definitely to try and find weapons of mass destruction which of course you never did. We went to war on a lie essentially, didn’t we?
R: You can put it in those terms and I sometimes describe it in those terms. We went to war not because of weapons of mass destruction anyway but weapons of mass destruction were the justification for going to war. The real problem is the politics got ahead of the intelligence. It was George Bush that said after 9/11, I very clearly remember his State of the Union address on the 29th of January 2002, about a year before the Iraq war and I remember George Bush in his State of Union address saying “Iraq is a grave and growing danger”. That came as a surprise to me, but it also came as a surprise to the CIA and to the United Nations, for that matter. Iraq was not a grave and growing danger, I just told you about all the things we disarmed, we’d got rid of the biological program, the nuclear program. There may have been a few unanswered questions, but our belief is they didn’t have much left.
But once George Bush says that, if you're an analyst in the CIA you better find the evidence to support your President and that’s where the corruption was. The lack of their trade craft, the lack of objectivity then. Intelligence is a funny business, there’s always little bits of evidence here. You get tons of information coming in, what you reject, what you accept, how reliable is this? It’s like journalism and you have to have supported information. You don’t just say well he says this, well right, this is what happened. No, you’ve got to have corroborating information and they just didn’t have that in many cases, and they used sometimes a single source and that happened in the biological area. Single source, he was a fake saying that they’d remade biological weapons.
So it was that sort of thing. The analysts desperate to get something that they could support the President, and of course the head of the CIA wanted this as well, so it was a corruption of all the process that should occur because the politics came before the real intelligence. I blame the analysts as much as the political system for this. Some of the analysts really believed what they were doing, some didn’t quite but I blame the analysts as much as the political side. Of course they didn’t go to war anyway over weapons of mass destruction, that was the excuse and they could say look, the analysts said Iraq really is a grave and growing – they’re getting all these – but they wanted to go to war for you could say geopolitical -
M: One of the things that does come through quite strongly is the – for want of a better term – the sexing up of a lot of the documentation. We know that David Kelly in the UK was deeply, tragically involved in exposing some of that perhaps and I just wonder how you feel about how the politics demanded the intelligence and some of the corroboration to be sexed up to fit their political agenda? Because you’re quite cynical about the politics, understandably, in the book and that does come through.
R: Yes, well it was a corruption of intelligence just as I’ve been describing. The politics just was running well ahead and any report that came out, because there was a demand publicly of course to get the sentences and the propaganda out if you can put it that way. So when a politician spoke about the intelligence – I mean in the intelligence world when you describe something you say this is possible or that might occur or may, there’s very few times that any positives – except when the politicians cross out the possible, cross out the maybe, put down Iraq has got these weapons, not well they could possibly have them, no. Because they really needed to convince the public so that they could justify the war and that’s as terrible as you can get in my view. When you’re going to war and lives are involved that’s as corrupt as politics as you can get.
M: I don’t know if you can comment on this or no but how closely aligned with all of that were, we? Was Australia in that process.
R: Well we unfortunately under John Howard went along with it and I would say that was because of the alliance we had with the United States, we wanted to go along. The same with Tony Blair in the UK, they wanted to support the Americans. I’m not saying there was no intelligence but as I said Australian intelligence agencies didn’t – I can say this now, Australian intelligence agencies didn’t get it as wrong as the United States did. Our intelligence agencies – in fact DIO at that stage, Defence Intelligence Organisation, saying there is no evidence for this. They didn’t say it didn’t happen, but they said there’s no evidence for a new biological program and that was the advice that was being given to our Prime Minister.
When he spoke in Parliament about the need to go to war, he quoted not the Australian intelligence but the US. You have a go back to Hansard and look at that, he was quoting the US. So, what he was quoting was quite correct but he never came back to the Australian intelligence and said well but our own analysts say there’s no evidence.
M: I mean do you think we’ve learnt anything out of all of that experience?
R: No. In fact, one of the quotes I give here is from Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, some of you have read that book and it was a great influence to me when I read it in my 20s. The quote I give is Huxley said that “men don’t learn anything from history and that is the greatest lesson in history” and that’s - I think is certainly true. We haven’t learnt anything in all that time.
M: Of course, the book ends at – well around the period of 2004 when you did break cover. You had an interview with Four Corners which revealed your concerns about abuse at Camp Cropper. I wonder for you how significant that moment was and what is the line that you decide you are going to do something like that? Which I know that is a big step for anybody who’s worked in the intelligence community to do something like that.
R: That was one of the most difficult decisions I had to make, to go public and I knew the consequences of doing it. I wasn’t revealing any official secrets, of course, but I knew I’d be labelled a whistle-blower and a troublemaker and I knew I’d become an outlaw within the intelligence community and I knew that any chance of any work back there would be over. Also, it was ingrained into you that you never speak publicly even when you retire. That’s why you don’t see too many people writing a book like this, Life of a Spy. You would never admit to all of that, you never talk about your work even after you left because it was – I’d been in that business for a long time by this stage so it was a very, very difficult decision for me to make.
I made it for two reasons, one because of all the lies that had been told and even after we knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq the government still not admitting to that, that was part of it. But the other thing that really disturbed me was the prisoner abuse. Now this was before we saw those terrible pictures about Abu Ghraib and the American mistreatment of prisoners and so on. I raised it at a very senior level in the Defence Department in Canberra and they listened to me and nodded and so on and there’s one thing I regret, that I hadn’t pushed it harder but I thought well they’ve listened and I said we should have nothing to do with this anymore and we should condemn it and nothing happened.
Then the next thing we know we see the pictures of Abu Ghraib and we also see the Defence Minister denying that we had any involvement in this and I thought hang on, we didn’t torture people but we had involvement with those prisoners, I had involvement with those prisoners. I’d been to – they called it Camp Cropper which is a funny name for a prison where people end up in a CIA prison, Cropper but it was named after apparently a soldier, Mr Cropper or Sergeant Cropper. But they’d been illtreated before they’d gone into this prison and bit by bit, I’d been collecting information on that. After all I’m an intelligence officer and I'm good at collecting bits of information. I didn’t have a complete picture and I didn’t have 100% evidence, but I had enough to be very, very concerned about it.
As it turned out it was absolutely true, what I had reported and again since then some of the people who had been mistreated who I knew quite well, some of the Iraqis, have reported about their maltreatment. I thought this has to be told to the world, we just cannot leave this as if we had no involvement and it didn’t happen. It did happen and the world should hear about that and that’s what really convinced me about it. I’d been asked several times to do a Four Corners program and I declined. It was Liz Jackson -
M: Very persuasive.
R: Yeah, very persuasive. She asked me and I refused several times and eventually I thought no, I have to say something about this, and Four Corners is the ideal medium to present it. She was going to do a program on this, and I thought well I’ll be part of this program and she’ll interview lots of other people. It turned out I was the program. But I was pleased that I’d said it and even after that I was still pushing it, but the government was still denying it.
M: I mean you mentioned that – not particularly popular among your colleagues. What do they think now?
R: Well some of my colleagues of course were friends and have stuck by me throughout. I think most of those I’d worked with – I wasn’t an outlaw as far as they were concerned but it was the senior management that wanted nothing to do with me and not only that, I was never to enter that building again. In fact when I was in the building I was almost escorted out. In fact one of the guards who I knew quite well, the entrance to the Defence Intelligence Organisation, he said, Rod ‘cause I knew him quite – he said Rod, I have instructions never to let you back in this building and I never stepped foot back in that building ever again. So that’s how deep it was. Some of the staff were told don’t even mix with Rod Barton socially, that’s how deep it was. It did happen still, of course. They were told that.
M: Good. Look, I’m aware there may be some questions from the audience. If there are please, there’s some microphones coming down.
A: Yeah, I was just going to say there are microphones coming so if people can wait ‘til the microphone’s there because we are recording this, the Library, not the spooks. So, if you want to raise your hands and the microphone will come to you.
Au: Good evening. I haven’t read the book yet so the answer to this may be within it. What was going through your head when you saw Colin Powell give his presentation to the United Nations knowing your intelligence background and your United Nations background as well?
M: Colin Powell’s presentation -
R: Colin Powell’s presentation.
M: What did you think of that?
R: Yeah, Colin Powell’s presentation. Well I was quite impressed because it was so new to me and he presented his evidence at the Security Council. I wasn’t allowed – although I was the special adviser to Hans Blix who was head of the inspection regime and Blix was at one end of the Security Council chambers and Colin Powell was at the other, quite significantly with George Tenet, the head of the CIA, sitting right behind him. But I was quite impressed. I mean I always thought that Colin Powell was a good guy and impressive and genuine and I think his presentation was genuine. I think actually he’s said since I was misled, and he was. But he presented it and with quite a lot of intelligence that had been declassified or downgraded so they presented – very unusual presentation at the Security Council. I thought yeah but I’ve never seen or heard of this, I’ve talked to my CIA colleagues, they’ve never told me about this but of course as we said before they don’t reveal everything to me. But I thought yeah, that’s quite a good presentation.
But once we start looking at this a bit more carefully you saw how thin the information, or the intelligence was. As I mentioned before the CIA analysts had lost their way in all of this, they had lost their objectivity. There was also this group think, they have to have weapons ‘cause everyone else says they’ve got weapons and so on and everything we see now is interpreted in the light of they’ve got weapons and therefore this activity we see on satellite imagery, that must be chemical weapons being moved around. There’s some characteristics of it but a lot of it was just nonsense. Even when Colin Powell said we even have a source who was an engineer for the biological weapons, he’s an engineer and he had involvement in producing and he’s a direct source. This source was as I mentioned earlier a guy who was a complete fake and a liar and the only source. I don’t know whether Colin Powell was told that.
But when you hear it the first time you think he’s presenting it, it must be – so the first thing I did after that is through our UN system, and we had a little intelligence unit in the UN – we don’t admit to it, it’s an information unit – I wrote a series of questions to the Americans, never got a response. When we started investigating that through the Iraq Survey group which was investigating where are these missing weapons after the Iraq war in 2003 and we went there with this group called the Iraq Survey group headed by the CIA, their complete focus was on Colin Powell’s talk, on his presentation. We investigated each aspect of it and each aspect just fell to nothing, just crumbled away and we thoroughly investigated everything. It was just – it went all to nothing. That should have been an eye-opener even for the CIA but the still wouldn’t admit there were no weapons there.
M: No, it took them – yes.
R: Took them a while.
M: A while to get around to that. Anyone else?
Au: Just further to that it must be hard for the UN to stand up to its most powerful member and host nation so I’m wondering how much pressure Hans Blix and UNMOVIC felt they were under within the UN to come up with the sort of answers that the Americans wanted to hear?
R: Yeah, it’s a very good question and you’re right, the UN came under a lot of pressure from the US and Blix himself personally came under a lot of pressure. The inspection regime has a board of governors which Blix is the Chairman and I remember the American representative on this board of governors really got stuck into Blix saying you're not doing your job properly and so on. It became quite a heated discussion. Blix was a very – Swedish, very calm, former diplomat, former foreign minister, actually and even Blix got quite agitated at the American accusations which were very, very strong.
But Blix also told me that he had representatives come in and say no, you’ve got to change your views on this or that. But Blix – we stood out, we stood up for what we thought and what we believed. So, the credit goes to the UN then or to Blix, we didn’t buckle under to this pressure, not that it would have made any real difference. In the end what we were saying as inspectors was neither here nor there, the US had dismissed us anyway. The war would have occurred no matter what we were going to say.
Au: Gidday Rod. I don’t want to put you on the spot but -
R: But you are.
Au: But I’m going to. We didn’t really discover – I mean you did all that work on gross media that really put pressure on the Iraqis to reveal much more about the BW program but just before Desert Storm and we’re going back before then, four or five years before you did that work there was a rapid fire vaccination program of US and UK troops - this is in the December – for anthrax and bot tox A like a toxoid. Seems a little strange, doesn’t it, if we didn’t know there was a BW program or someone didn’t know there was a BW program that there would be this rapid fire, under pressure vaccination program. Just seems a little bit odd, perhaps a tad suspicious. We didn’t do it in Vietnam, we didn’t do it elsewhere but very specifically for at least those two agents, there might have been a third. So, I’d just like your comments on that, thanks.
R: Yes, you’re right. Even well before we knew about the program there was vaccinations done. In fact, on my very first mission into Iraq in 1991 when we knew nothing about a biological weapons program the UN with the help from the US gave vaccinations to the inspectors and I had a – anthrax vaccination and I had some bot tox. I think that was precautionary rather than anything else. I don’t believe the US had any real information. It was that if there was going to be a war these are the sort of things you should protect against, anthrax being an obvious one because it’s so easy to produce in quantities.
Bot tox is less certain why they were concerned about that because that’s not a traditional biological warfare agent and therefore why have protection against botulinum toxin? So, I’m not exactly sure where that information came from but the Americans themselves really had no idea either because otherwise, we would have uncovered the program a lot earlier. The Americans were as keen as we were to uncover as the UN was, to uncover any biological weapons program. That’s why it lingered for a long time because no-one really knew anything.
M: Does it suggest that they definitely were preparing for some sort of conflict?
R: Yes, oh yes.
Au: I suppose a bit of a Dixer in a way, a Dorothy Dixer but looking back at your career you obviously worked with multilateral sort of efforts. Do you think they were effective, and do you think that they continue to be effective?
R: Another good question. I sometimes despaired of all the years I spent in Iraq doing weapons inspections when what happened in the end, we went to war anyway. What was it all for? I spent a good chunk of my life doing that sort of work. On the other hand, you had to do it, you had to try. Alright, perhaps we’d failed in some ways, but you can’t overcome the politics as I pointed out.
A bit different in Somalia. As I said I showed there that what we were doing could achieve things and in fact now the UN has programs similar to what I was working on, a bit more sophisticated than what I did ‘cause I was making it up as I went along but they have similar programs in seven different countries now and I have to say I think that is the way of the future. We have countries like Syria who’s still fighting the civil war but what happens to all the militias if there ever is peace or in Yemen or in Libya? You name it, you keep on going through. What happens to all the young militia men who only know how to carry a gun and shoot someone, kill someone? So without knowing it I guess I was doing pioneering work but I didn’t know it at the time, I was just making it up and fortunately I seemed to do it mainly right, not on everything but got most of it right, I think. So that’s why as I said I think that was in some ways the proudest work I ever did on an international basis.
M: Look, I’m aware of the time, has it run away from us? But thank you, Rod, it’s a fantastic read. I commend the book, it’s brilliant, well done –
R: Thank you.
M: - and very interesting and what a life. So, thanks, everyone, for coming.
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