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Australian Opposition Defence Spokesman Stephen Conroy Expresses Concern on US Exaggerations on Syria

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: There was another disturbing piece of news today. The New York Times is reporting an investigation by the Pentagon’s Inspector General into serious allegations that senior military officers manipulated the conclusions of intelligence reports to paint a distorted and rosier picture of the war against ISIS. Well to discuss that and the opening salvo of the air campaign in Syria, I was joined just a short time ago by Labor’s Defence spokesman, Senator Stephen Conroy.

Stephen Conroy, thanks for joining us.

STEPHEN CONROY, OPPOSITION DEFENCE SPOKESMAN: Good to be with you again, Tony.

TONY JONES: We got the first confirmation today of an Australian air strike on an ISIS target in Syria, but of course, the initial information, the data came from the Americans, not from the Australians, confirmed subsequently by the Australians. Are you worried at all about the level of transparency around this operation?

STEPHEN CONROY: Well I think firstly, we got a full briefing last week. I met with the CDF and we had a very, very good conversation, discussion and talked about how it’s been going in Iraq and what we needed and wanted to do in Syria. And we discussed a range of different topics and we were very comfortable with the briefing we got.

TONY JONES: Now, as we’ve seen, the British-based NGO Airwars has contradicted the Pentagon’s figures on the number of civilian deaths caused by US air strikes in Syria. The Pentagon admits to killing two young civilian girls. But the Airwars investigated 65 incidents. They concluded the US attacks have killed between 291 and 354 civilians. Should these cases be further investigated by the Australian and US military?

STEPHEN CONROY: Well, if they were in Syria previously, by definition, Australia hasn’t been involved, so I don’t know if there’s any case to be made that Australia should be involved in anything that’s happened prior to our involvement in Syria.

TONY JONES: But does it concern you at all that the Pentagon’s putting out figures that they’ve killed two civilians and this independent group, using multiple sources, have come up with this vastly higher figure?

STEPHEN CONROY: Well look, I’ve sought information, as I said, in the briefing recently with our Chief of Defence about claims that Australia may have killed some civilians. I’ve been reassured by those briefings. And what I think your viewers should understand is that Australia has the most stringent red card system, it’s referred to in the jargon. We’ve got the most stringent guidelines around whether we will or will not actually ultimately fire. We have a chain of command, a process, which I think Australians would be very reassured about in terms of why we’ve been able to minimise as close to zero as is humanly possible in that process. Obviously, in a war circumstance like we’re in there, it isn’t possible to have absolute guarantees.

TONY JONES: In that briefing that you were given, incidentally, did the Australian military concede that they had actually killed civilians? That would be in Iraq.

STEPHEN CONROY: Look, I’m not – I can’t go into the details, but I’m reassured that, to the best of our knowledge, that our system works to minimise casualties. I don’t believe there’s been any accusation that we have definitely killed any civilians, but from the information, and I’ve received a full briefing on this, we have a system that works better than anyone else’s in the world to minimise.

TONY JONES: Let’s talk about the American system because that’s what Airwars is looking at with their bombing operations in Syria. They’re drawing on sources on the ground. They looked at 35 incidents in particular in which they found a fair level, what they call a fair level of public evidence, video, photographic and biographic evidence related to coalition air strikes. They concluded between 226 and 280 civilians died in those incidents in Syria. Does it concern you that the US rules of engagement may be looser than the Australian?

STEPHEN CONROY: The Americans have a different set of standards and a different interpretation of those standards. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with their interpretation compared to ours.

TONY JONES: But is it a problem if we’re in an allied operation with them and they have – their bombing efforts have led to more civilian – many more civilian casualties than they admit to?

STEPHEN CONROY: Well let’s be clear: they’ve been engaged in many, many, many more – multiple times more sorties than we have. So the risk, when you do more sorties is, by definition, you can have more potential casualties civilian-wise. But we’d be concerned if we believed the Americans were being reckless. We don’t believe that’s the case.

TONY JONES: OK. The New York Times is reporting today that the Pentagon’s Inspector General is investigating claims that senior US military officers have manipulated the conclusions of reports on the war against ISIS and led the White House to believe effectively that things are going a lot better than they really are. Does this investigation have implications for the Australian military involvement?

STEPHEN CONROY: Well I think firstly, every Australian would be concerned if reports like this were found to be true. We’ve all lived through the invasion based on false intelligence information. No-one wants to see a repeat of that. I think it’s a very serious allegation. I’ve been following it for about a week. I’ve spoken to people in the US about this last week and we’re waiting to see what the independent Inspector General of Department of Defence over there’s investigation finds. But I think when you see 50 analysts potentially put their name to some fairly serious allegations, I think it deserves a full and independent investigation.

TONY JONES: Just so the people understand a little more about this, the investigation is in response to the concern from these 50 analysts that their data has been misused. The spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s Inspector General says it will address whether there was any falsification, distortion, delay, suppression or improper modification of intelligence information. All those are pretty serious allegations. Now, should there now be an investigation, do you think, or an examination at least, of the intelligence that was given to Australia from these same people before Australia decided to get involved in this operation?

STEPHEN CONROY: It would be very concerning if the information that we’ve been given about how it was going – was being tampered with or gilding the lily. As I said, I was aware of this before I met with the Chief of Defence. I raised it. I was satisfied on the information that he gave me that Australia was confident in the information it was receiving.

TONY JONES: Because the analyst at the centre of the investigation allege their superiors, that is, generals, essentially, within CentCom intelligence – and presumably that’s where Australia gets intelligence on these issues as well – changed the conclusions of the analysts about a number of topics including the readiness of the Iraqi forces and the success of the bombing against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. That would be extremely disturbing, would it not?

STEPHEN CONROY: Absolutely. And I think everyone should be awaiting the report of the Inspector General. And he’s an independent agency. So I think it’s vital that a thorough investigation is held into this. I think it would be a very serious situation if people have been doing any of the things that you’ve described.

TONY JONES: I’m sorry to interrupt you there. Finally, though, we’ve got little time left: you asked several questions in the Senate today directed to the Prime Minister about the scandal in which Vodafone employees are alleged to have hacked into the phone of Fairfax journalist Natalie O’Brien. Are you angling to drag Malcolm Turnbull into this?

STEPHEN CONROY: Well I think the issue is that the head of the NBN, Bill Morrow, was the chief executive at the time this was uncovered in Vodafone. Vodafone have acknowledged in their own internal documents, at the time, when Mr Morrow was the COE, that this was a crime. A crime has been committed. A breach of the Telecommunication Act has been committed. And what’s disturbing is that Vodafone, at the time, when Mr Morrow was the CEO, did not report it to the police, did not report it to the ACMA and did not apologise to the journalist involved. And what we’ve seen just in the last 48 hours is the new CEO of Vodafone has now reported it to the New South Wales Police and has phoned the journalist and apologised.

TONY JONES: So in the Senate on Monday – sorry to interrupt you there, but in the Senate on Monday, you actually questioned the national broadband chief Bill Morrow about his fitness to run the NBN. Now are you suggesting he should stand aside?

STEPHEN CONROY: Well I want to get to the bottom of what Mr Morrow knew. And the company itself, while Mr Morrow was CEO, hired an external firm, KPMG, to conduct the investigation into this. And they came back and confirmed, firstly, that no Vodafone executives were actually involved, which is a very good thing. I’m not suggesting for a moment Mr Morrow was – he wasn’t even in the country when this happened, so let’s be very clear about that. But secondly, that the offence was committed. Vodafone admit it. This is – a crime has been committed. And what we want to know is why Mr Morrow didn’t read the reports from KPMG, commissioned by his own company – he’s the CEO of the company – and why it wasn’t reported to the police.

TONY JONES: Finally, ’cause we are pretty much out of time, are there questions arising out of this for Malcolm Turnbull?

STEPHEN CONROY: Absolutely.

TONY JONES: What are they?

STEPHEN CONROY: Well, Mr Turnbull should get to the bottom of why Mr Morrow failed to tell him that a cover up by Vodafone while Mr Morrow was there took place. Why Mr Morrow didn’t tell Mr Turnbull, the telecommunications minister, that a crime had been committed under the act in which Mr Turnbull administers, why ACMA weren’t involved, why the NSW Police weren’t called in. I think they are all legitimate questions. And I think Mr Turnbull has to ask those questions and get some satisfactory answers from Mr Morrow.

TONY JONES: Stephen Conroy, we’ll have to leave you there. We thank you very much for coming in to join us.

STEPHEN CONROY: Good to be with you again, Tony.

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