Mamdouh Habib, 2: Australian government, zip. That’s a fair interpretation of the media’s assessment of the findings of Vivienne Thom, Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), in relation to the actions of Australian government agencies concerning Habib’s arrest and detention overseas from 2001 to 2005.
However, this is a substantial misreading of the unclassified version of the IGIS report, which completely discredits the case Habib and his supporters have run against the government for close to a decade.
The taxpayer-funded ABC was the most egregious offender. Shortly after the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, released Dr Thom’s report on Friday, ABC News focused not on Habib but on his wife Maha Habib, reporting that “the Australian government is refusing to apologise to the wife of a Guantanamo Bay inmate, even though an inquiry has found Australian authorities failed to keep his family informed about his welfare”.
Later that evening, PM presenter, Mark Colvin, declared Thom had given the intelligence agencies “a series of black marks over the case of the former terror suspect Mamdouh Habib”. Reporter Alexandra Kirk ran a similar line before interviewing Habib’s legal adviser, Stephen Hopper. It was much the same on Lateline, where presenter Emma Alberici introduced the story by declaring that “the overseas arrest and detention of Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib was handled poorly by all the local agencies involved”. Reporter John Stewart ran a similar line before interviewing Habib himself.
And now for some facts. Habib is a dual Australian-Egyptian who was detained in Pakistan in October 2001, since there was credible information that he may have had prior knowledge of the September 11 attacks. The evidence indicates Habib was transferred to Egypt in November 2001. In April 2002 he was moved to Bagram, the US base in Afghanistan, before being flown to Guantanamo Bay. He was released back to Australia in January 2005. By early 2002, ASIO had formed the view that Habib was not involved in the planning of future attacks.
Not long after his return, Habib commenced legal proceedings against the Commonwealth. In July 2010 the Federal Court made orders for the discovery of documents. In December 2010 the case was settled and a confidential deed of settlement signed. It is understood Habib received a payment as part of the settlement.
Dr Thom commenced the IGIS inquiry, following a request from Gillard, just after the settlement was reached. In her findings, Thom recommended that “Australian government agencies should prepare an apology to Mrs Maha Habib” for failing to properly inform her about Habib’s circumstances. The Gillard government accepted all the report’s six recommendations – except this one. As the Prime Minister said, “we are satisfied that Australian agencies and officials performed their duties faithfully in the difficult and unprecedented environment in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks”.
Sure, in Thom’s report, there are some criticisms of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (then headed by Dennis Richardson), the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Federal Police. However, the critical findings with respect to these agencies essentially turn on the process during the time in which Habib was under the control of Pakistan, Egyptian and American authorities. Her principal complaint is that “Mr Habib’s best interests should have been the subject of more attention and action by Australian government agencies” when he was arrested and detained overseas.
What is significant about this report is that Thom completely demolishes the specific case made by Habib against Australian officials in his 2008 book My Story – The Tale of a Terrorist Who Wasn’t (Scribe) and elsewhere.
In particular, Thom rejected Habib’s widely publicised claims that Australian officials (i) mistreated or threatened him when he was detained in Pakistan, (ii) were involved in his rendition to Egypt and (iii) were present during his interrogation in Egypt. In particular, Thom rejected Habib’s claim that ASIO officers named “Stewart” or “Stuart” or “David” saw him when he was in Egypt. She did not reach any conclusion as to why Habib made those allegations but raised the possibility that “given the very difficult circumstances of his detention” he “was confused and his recollection of events is unclear”.
Thom also found that Australian officials, including Richardson, “gave a strong and consistent message” that Australia would not agree to Habib being sent from Pakistan to Egypt. She also found that Habib was “not forthcoming in his communication” with Australian officials while in Guantanamo Bay. Moreover, she reported that Habib said he would provide documents to her for her inquiry but failed to do so.
The big story of the IGIS report was that Habib’s claims about mistreatment by Australian authorities had been dismissed by Thom. But this finding was buried in the news reports – especially on the ABC.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.