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Australian probe faults weak prewar intelligence on Iraq

CANBERRA, Australia -- Australia's decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq was based on thin, equivocal, and uncertain intelligence about that country's weapons of mass destruction, a report on Australia's prewar intelligence gathering found yesterday.

But the report by former Australian diplomat and spy master Philip Flood cleared Prime Minister John Howard's government of allegations that it doctored intelligence assessments to boost its case for joining the war.

In his 185-page report, Flood lamented ''the thinness of the intelligence on which analysts were expected to make difficult calls" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The findings were similar to reports issued in both the United States and Britain.

''There was little by way of hard current intelligence available to analysts across the range of WMD capability issues," Flood said. ''Much of the information that was available was equivocal or of uncertain validity."

He added, ''The weakness of the intelligence picture was in part due to inadequate collection."

The efforts of the Australian spy agencies -- the Office of National Assessments and the Defense Intelligence Organization -- was further complicated by their heavy reliance on intelligence gathered by the United States and Britain, Flood said.

But he said the agencies had taken a more conservative view to the intelligence than their US and British counterparts.

''Using similar but not all of the material available to the UK and the US, Australian assessments on Iraq's capabilities were on the whole more cautious and seem even closer to the facts as we know them so far," Flood said. ''There was not, as some have charged, a blind adherence to US and UK assessments."

Flood also found ''no evidence of politicization of the assessments on Iraq, either overt of perceived," Howard said later.

That ruling is a major boost for Howard ahead of elections expected in September or October.

He sent 2,000 troops to back the US and British military in the invasion and still has nearly 900 military personnel in the region.

Flood found a need for greater accountability in the Australian intelligence community.

He recommended the prime minister's major adviser on intelligence analysis, ONA, have its annual budget almost doubled to $18 million a year.

''Mr. Flood found that the Australian intelligence community is performing well and is a potent capability for the government," Howard said in a statement.

The Labor Party, the major opposition, said Howard ''stands condemned" for taking Australia to war with an under-resourced intelligence community.

The Australian Democrats opposition party dismissed the Flood findings as little more than a whitewash and called for a new independent inquiry with special coercive powers to investigate intelligence agencies.

Howard ordered the Flood inquiry in March on the recommendation of a parliamentary committee that looked at Australian intelligence agencies leading up to the Iraq war.

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