Imagine this. In the midst of a deeply unpopular war, the Australian government and its top general create a news event that puts them and the armed forces in a favourable light, even if it sends a risk-averse military on a futile mission that’s possibly the government’s riskiest undertaking of the war.
If it was recounted in a work of fiction it might satisfy conspiracy theorists, but otherwise strain credulity. Yet we now know how and why it happened.
It went like this. On 12 April 2003, as Iraq descended into chaos after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the government of prime minister John Howard and the then chief of the defence force, Peter Cosgrove, ordered the armed forces to fly emergency medical supplies into Baghdad, possibly the most dangerous city in the world at the time. The supplies were flown in by RAAF C-130 Hercules, which during the actual invasion had been deliberately restricted to relatively safe areas. The plane carried with it three journalists, who up till then had been kept away from any Australian military operation. The medical supplies were rapidly off-loaded but never left the airport. Instead, they were left to rot.
As a manufactured news exercise, Operation Baghdad Assist was a triumph, played out not for the benefit of desperate Iraqis but for a domestic audience in Australia. It’s taken thirteen years for Australians to learn the facts. They come to us now thanks to a long-suppressed and still heavily censored account of the army’s role in Iraq, written by military historian Albert Palazzo of the Directorate of Army Research and Analysis.
We only know about Palazzo’s book thanks to a freedom-of-information request by Fairfax journalist David Wroe, whose reporting of its contents rightly focused on Palazzo’s key finding – that John Howard joined US president George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq solely to strengthen the alliance with the United States. The story attracted little follow-up, which is a pity because Palazzo’s history contains more than one insight.
What’s clear from Palazzo’s account is that the aim of winning maximum diplomatic credit from a minimal military contribution involved deft handling of purely domestic politics, which ultimately took precedence over our strategic alliance aims. Since the war was deeply unpopular and the Labor opposition was against it, the need to minimise casualties, control information and manipulate the media were all interlinked.
Controlling the message continues. Palazzo’s book, classified SECRET AUSTEO (Australian Eyes Only) and submitted to the army in 2011, has been locked away. In the version released under FOI, some 500 passages are redacted.
In releasing the censored version, the defence department gratuitously distanced itself from its contents, stressing that it is an “unofficial history” even though it was commissioned by the army and written in Palazzo’s capacity as an official historian with access to classified material. The current chief of the defence force, air chief marshall Mark Binskin, has questioned the book’s validity, status, academic rigour and conclusions, even though he’s admitted that he hasn’t read the full document.
Information and media control during the Iraq war predated Operation Baghdad Assist. It was central to the initial planning stages, when the ADF was sorting out the bare minimum of forces it could offer Washington in the event that Howard formally committed to supporting the invasion. Palazzo reveals that Cosgrove insisted on a direct line of command to officers in the Middle East so that he could “provide timely and accurate advice to the government” on a range of matters, including “any issue, no matter how tactical in nature, which may attract significant parliamentary or media interest.” As Palazzo notes, “almost everything fell within this mandate.”
It was in this context that Cosgrove, a soldier with sharp political skills honed during his time commanding troops in East Timor, could micro-manage from Canberra a media event like Operation Baghdad Assist. As Palazzo puts it, a nominal relief operation was quickly transformed into “an information operation targeting the Australian public rather than the humanitarian mission as it was first described… [T]he mission’s target was the Australian media and the Australian nation.”
It’s worth pausing to consider the term “information operation.” According to one official Australian definition, it means information-related activities involving the “execution of coordinated, synchronised and integrated lethal and non-lethal actions against the capability, will and understanding of target systems and/or target audiences.” Clearly, by this definition, these are operations directed at an enemy. Yet in this instance, the operation was aimed at swaying the minds of Australian voters, in which case “political propaganda” might be a more apt term.
Palazzo relates how, in a middle-of-the night call, Cosgrove instructed the Middle East commander, Brigadier Maurie McNarn, that the operation was going ahead and to facilitate media coverage. When McNarn protested that Baghdad airport was not secure and there was no way to distribute the supplies, he was told to “make it happen” by Cosgrove, who was about to announce the operation at a news conference in Australia. Palazzo doesn’t mention this, at least in the redacted version, but the insistence that journalists be given seats on the flight sharply contrasted with the suffocating restrictions the ADF usually imposes on media coverage. Palazzo notes that the mission “attracted considerable and highly favourable attention from the Australian media and achieved the objective of portraying the ADF in a good light. In a war that some had questioned, it was a definite ‘feel good’ story.”
While it was a public relations coup, it raises a troubling question for Palazzo about “the acceptability of government manipulation of the media” to influence the domestic politics. “In seeking a media effect on the Australian public Cosgrove and the Howard government played a dangerous if calculated game, perhaps the most risky act they committed” during the war, he writes.
This is a serious charge to make against the Cosgrove and Howard, and it’s worth restating: the government and Cosgrove are accused of using the apolitical armed forces to carry out a dangerous and partisan political stunt in the midst of a war. Yet it’s a conclusion Palazzo and his readers can reasonably draw, based on the accounts of McNarn and special forces commander Lieutenant Colonel Rick Burr. McNarn regarded the operation as a complete failure, cynically describing it as “photo opportunity.”
Burr was appalled, writing in his diary:
This was unbelievable. We had not been allowed to do anything without getting CDF [Cosgrove’s] approval, and only then after painstaking detail and risk assessment etc. next thing we know we are throwing a group into the supposedly the most dangerous location, with no preparation as a team, with no idea, and with no identified C2 [command and control] structure, and with no advice to me on the risk my blokes will be subjected to (because no one has thought of that). With regard to our C130, they couldn’t fly anywhere near western Iraq to support us, in what is a known low threat environment now, but out of the blue, they are allowed to fly into Baghdad.
Baghdad Assist confirms high-level military sensitivity towards the government’s domestic political interests. At the very least, it raises questions about the limits of the military’s obligations in a democracy to carry out the wishes of an elected civilian government.
Domestic politics – more than any military need – clearly influenced what forces Australia was prepared to offer the US in Iraq. Army planners who considered sending the cavalry’s light armoured vehicles to the war were acutely aware that the government was “uncomfortable with the prospect of losses due to the possible negative effect on the domestic political environment.” This was a key factor in the army ruling out sending in the cavalry for the invasion. Later, when they were despatched after the invasion phase, the government ensured they were assigned to an area where there was little chance they would actually have to fight. The obsession with controlling the news reached what Palazzo labels absurd levels when defence officials drafted an elaborate media strategy in the event word got out that a soldier had been involved – but not hurt – in a minor traffic accident. In all of this, the ADF “succeeded in meeting the government’s desire to avoid allowing Iraq to become a larger domestic concern than it could otherwise have been.”
If controlling the message and media manipulation are threads in Palazzo’s history, official secrecy has stifled his attempts to tell it. His book started as an effort to write an account of the army’s role in Iraq, with junior officers the intended audience. It was meant to be unclassified. But he recounts how this original mandate soon unravelled as his access to secret information meant the book would have to remain classified. His work “was not helped… by the ADF’s practice of minimising the amount of information it released to the open domain.”
The extent of the redactions in the version released under FOI – whole pages are blacked out – confirms the defence bureaucracy’s deeply entrenched tendency to overclassify information. Material that’s already in public– such as the fact that the army used bases in Jordan, Kuwait and Doha – is redacted. A footnote suggests that one redacted passage cites material already published in the Australian.
As to why the book was suppressed, defence chief Binskin gave a confused answer when questioned in a Senate estimates hearing on 1 March. He confirmed the “document’ was commissioned by the army, but then described it as “unofficial.” Palazzo’s conclusions, based on three years of research and the accounts of more than seventy current and retired military officers, were his “opinions.” Binskin dismissed the book as lacking “academic rigour.” Yet questioned by Greens senator Scott Ludlam, he conceded he had only read the redacted version.
In an exchange with Ludlam, Binskin disputed Palazzo’s conclusion that Australia’s sole strategic objective in joining the invasion of Iraq was to improve relations with the US. Pressed on whether such an objective was sufficient reason to put soldiers in harm’s way, Binskin replied, “Again, it is his [Palazzo’s] opinion. We operate in accordance with what the government's strategic intent is on the day.”
Ludlam: “What strategic objectives did Australia achieve through its involvement in that war?”
Binskin: “I think if we go back into that we could be here all day. I am happy to take all of that on notice and provide those details to you.”
While the chief of the defence force ponders what, if anything, Australia achieved in Iraq, there seems little chance the army is willing to overcome what Palazzo calls the “challenge” imposed by secrecy to allow the book to be distributed as widely as possible. Yet, he says: “The memory and recognition of those who served in Iraq warrants no less.” •