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PM Howard I/V On Lateline - Pre-emptive Strikes

29 November 2002

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER
THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP
INTERVIEW WITH TONY JONES, LATELINE, ABC

Subjects: Terrorism; Israel; Bali; United Nations charter; leadership.

LINK TO DISCUSSION OF PRE-EMPTIVE STRIKES
E&OE

JONES:

Prime Minister, welcome to Lateline. Do you still believe the Mombasa terrorist attacks are linked to al Qaeda?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I do. The indications are of a similar pattern. I don’t have hard intelligence on that yet but the preliminary indications suggest that.

JONES:

President Bush has not made that link. Do you know why he’s steering away?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t. I haven’t actually seen what President Bush has said. I’m going on some published reports and the similar pattern. But I may be wrong, but I’m just giving you my reaction as of now.

JONES:

This concentration on soft targets, as they call them, is already doing terrible damage to countries which are reliant on tourism. Do you believe, or do you now regard our domestic tourist industry as being under threat?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well everybody is under threat now. I don’t regard Australia as being under as big a threat as other countries but self-evidently in this new, more dangerous climate, everybody is under more threat. We have to keep trying all the time to preserve a sense of perspective between being prepared and being realistic on the one hand, yet not shrivelling up into a nervous shell and becoming too depressed. We’ve got to strike a balance, a happy medium between vigilance and normality.

JONES:

Now the targeting of Israelis has brought a swift response from Prime Minister Sharon. He’s vowed to avenge the victims. He says Israel’s long arm will reach the terrorists and the people who send them. Now after Bali do you have some sympathy for that sentiment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ve always had some sympathy for Israel’s position. Israel has had to live with people trying to wipe her out virtually since the country was created in 1948. But it’s understandable the Israelis will want to retaliate but it’s also important though, difficult as it is to talk about such a thing right at the moment, but everybody keep trying to get some lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Much and all as I sympathise with Israel, and everyone knows that, I do recognise that the Palestinians have got a right to a homeland and we need to redouble our efforts to find some solution, difficult though it is, to that terribly intractable problem.

JONES:

I’ll come back a little more to that because it gets at the heart of some of the things would appear to be driving the anti-western feeling, at least it's being exploited by al Qaeda. So I will come back to that issue. But I guess what I was getting at is that after September 11, President Bush basically said the gloves are off and he gave his own Central Intelligence Agency the power to go out and assassinate terrorist leaders. They recently did that in Yemen. Would you consider giving our own security forces that sort of power?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we don’t have any proposals to do that, however let me say I thought many people would see what occurred in the Yemen as being understandable retribution.

JONES:

Have you sought advice on the possibility of Australian forces being used in the same way?

PRIME MINISTER:

We don’t have any proposals to do that. I don’t think I’ll get into the general area of what advice I seek in relation to security forces, but we don’t have any proposals currently before us in relation to that kind of activity.

JONES:

Here’s a far from hypothetical case though. Would you be prepared to send the SAS into the field to capture or kill the man who apparently ordered the Bali bombing – Hambali – if you had reliable intelligence as to where he was and you believe that he was beyond the law, beyond the reach of the law?

PRIME MINISTER:

That is a very hypothetical question. Tony, very seriously and not wanting to avoid answering that sort of question, we ought to recognise that the progress with the investigation in relation to the atrocity in Bali has been very good. The Indonesian Police and the Australian Federal Police both deserve very high praise and it would be wrong of me, because that investigation has gone so well, to hypothesise in any way about what we might do on the assumption that it weren’t going as well as it clearly is.

JONES:

As a matter of principle though, as a matter of law, would you have the power to order our security forces to do something like that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look the law as it now stands in relation to Australian intelligence forces I think is known and there are certain limitations in relation to that. We are living in a different world now than we perhaps were living when the current United Nations charter was written and that was the point that Robert Hill was making on this very program the other night, and I agree with Robert. I would always want to see Australia act in accordance with proper international practices but proper international practice has always recognised legitimate self-defence. And I have said before, and I’ll say it again, that if I were given clear evidence that this country were likely to suffer an attack, and I had a capacity as Prime Minister to do something to prevent that attack occurring, I would be negligent to the people of Australia if I didn’t take that action.

JONES:

Now Senator Hill told us on this program the charter needs to be liberalised in order to allow for pre-emptive actions, with self-defence at the heart of it, as he put it. You have said today the charter is not as flexible and appropriate as current circumstances require. How should it be changed?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think what Robert was saying, and the international community needs to debate this with a view to seeing whether the UN charter can't be changed, was very simply that when it was written, we thought in terms of states invading states, we didn't think of random, stateless terrorist groups invading and creating mayhem and murder and destruction on other countries and other societies. And it's hardly legitimate to go on saying well you have to respond to that kind of conduct in accordance with rules that were written when that kind of conduct was never contemplated. That's the point Robert Hill was making and it's a very logical point and I agree with him.

JONES:

Does it appear then that Australia is going to be leading some kind of debate, international debate, to see change happen? And if so, what sort of change would you envisage? What needs to be changed within the charter?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't know that we're setting out to lead the debate. I think other people are talking about this as well. The National Security Strategy of the United States recently published to the Congress canvasses some of these issues. I just want the international body of law, including the UN Charter to recognise the new reality. We face attack on our societies and our way of life, not through the formal declaration of war and armies rolling across borders and smashing down barriers has happened when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but rather to accommodate the new and different circumstances. And I think we do need a debate on this and that is really the essence of wanting to address the issue within a proper legal framework and not go outside the existing legal framework.

JONES:

But in a sense what you're talking about is changing the legal framework…

PRIME MINISTER:

There's nothing unusual about that. I mean, I constantly hear calls within Australia for our constitution to be changed for example, because they say it is no longer contemporary and that may or may not be right and that is a debate for another time and another occasion. But there's nothing illegitimate, illegal, improper, provocative about somebody arguing that current international law has been overtaken by changed circumstances where individually sponsored aggression and terror and not state sponsored aggression and terror, is now the greatest challenge the world has.

JONES:

Of course, acting pre-emptively, you could make the case for sending the SAS after Hambali, if you knew where he was…and that was the point I was making before.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I know it was and I heard it very carefully. But I'm also making the point that it is not appropriate, I think very unhelpful for me to hypothesise of some assumed failure of what is occurring in relation to Bali, when indeed the reverse is the case. I think the police there, both Australian and Indonesian, have done a very good job and I know that the relatives of so many of our people who died there will feel the same way.

JONES:

Well, I'm wondering then were you at all disturbed to find that the General of the Police, General Pastika, who was leading the investigation so well apparently in Bali, appears to have been removed from the case or so it's been reported.

PRIME MINISTER:

Tony, I'm not going to give a commentary on a detail like that. I have found in relation to this issue that there has been a steady determination by both police forces to achieve results, results are being achieved. The Australian Federal Police tell me that the investigation is going extremely well, that there is nothing exaggerated about what is being claimed. And on that basis, the last thing I want to do is to be making gratuitous comments about an element of the administration of the Indonesian investigation. I am pleased indeed that people have been arrested, that there appears to be great substance in the charges. And it looks as though a lot of people are going to be brought to justice and that in the end is what we all want.

JONES:

Mr Howard, one of the most vital pieces of intelligence we could possibly have in the this country right now is whether or not Australians were specifically targeted in the Bali attacks. And it's fair to say that one of the key organisers, indeed, the man who chose those targets - the Sari Bar and the Paddy's Bar - has now confessed to his role. Have you had a report from your Federal Police or intelligence officers as to whether this man specifically targeted Australians?

PRIME MINISTER:

There's nothing I've had that contradicts the publicly claimed confession that the Sari Bar was chosen because it was frequented by westerners. There's nothing that I have seen that I can recall that suggests that it was anymore specific than that. Now, it is true that Bin Laden has talked quite a bit about Australians in his recent tape, but it's also true that he has related his criticism of Australians more to our role in East Timor than to any other act by Australia. My general view remains that it is fanatical, Islamic hostility to the west to its way of life, its freedom, its democratic values, its openness, its equal treatment of men and women - all of those things that is the real target of the terrorists. We are part of the west. Whether, for example, Iraq had existed or not we would still be part of the west and therefore, we would be part of the target.

JONES:

Right. Now the US has now appointed Henry Kissinger to investigate the intelligence and security flaws that led up to September 11. Will you consider having some kind of inquiry, perhaps even a Royal Commission now into looking at what led up to October 12?

PRIME MINISTER:

Not because of what has happened in the United States. They are two separate issues and two separate countries. We had no specific warning of Bali. I’ve asked Mr Blick, the Inspector General of Intelligence, to review all the material. I expect that he will report to me soon. I’m not going to say any more on that general subject until I get his report. I’m not somebody who orders royal commissions at the drop of a hat and there’s been nothing that’s come forward since the original statements I made in Parliament to contradict them. But I don’t want to hide anything that shouldn’t be hidden and I’ll wait and see until I’ve got Mr Blick’s report. But nothing suggests that we were given a specific warning of Bali.

JONES:

At this stage though you’re not ruling out the possibility of a broader inquiry, a royal commission even?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m certainly not ruling it in. As of now, as I speak on this last Friday in November there is no evidence and there’s no persuasive argument to establish a royal commission.

JONES:

Mr Howard, yesterday you made a brief reference to the war time prime minister John Curtin and I’m wondering if you’ve been reflecting in this time of national crisis on the burden of leadership.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I certainly have. Curtin interested me as a prime minister as indeed did others. I read a biography of Curtin on a long flight to and from London earlier this year. He carried a lot of burdens. Any war time prime minister carried enormous burdens. Part of my fascination and admiration for Winston Churchill was the way in which he carried the weight of the free world on his shoulders alone for so long. Of course they were infinitely more difficult times than what we have now although what we are living through right at the moment is very challenging by peace time standards.

JONES:

It’s been an extraordinary 14 months hasn’t it since the September 11 attacks and I’m wondering if you’ve found the job of leading this country to be vastly more taxing during that time?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is very taxing but I’m a very committed disciplined person. I’m greatly sustained in the job I’m trying to do now by the tremendous response and positive and courageous attitude of the Australian people. The dominant emotion I felt after the tragic events of the 12th of October was unlimited admiration and affection for the way in which the Australian people came together and comforted those who needed comforting yet defiantly told the rest of the world that we were going to remain Australians and remain true to the sort of things we really believe in. It was incredibly encouraging and inspiring and uplifting.

JONES:

I asked you about John Curtin earlier specifically because he died in office at the age of 60, but he never considered stepping down in a time of war. Now you don’t strike me and you don’t strike many people as the sort of person to run away from a fight and so I’m wondering are you now reconsidering that possibility?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is true Tony that I’m not a person who’s ever run away from a fight or who ever will run away from a fight. It’s also true that difficult though things are at the present time we are not involved in a war and therefore my situation is different in that very important sense to John Curtin’s. But it’s also true that I don’t have anything to add on what I’ve previously said about my future.


JONES:

You’d have to agree though that the present crisis could hardly be more acute. We have the possibility of attacks at home and I’m wondering is it actually responsible to even consider passing on the baton to an untested leader in a time of crisis, in a time of national crisis?

PRIME MINISTER:

Tony I don’t get the impression as I move around the Australian community and talk as I do on a daily basis to hundreds of, indeed thousands of Australians, I don’t get the impression that they feel I’m behaving in any way irresponsibly.

JONES:

Do you get the impression they want you to stay?

PRIME MINISTER:

We talk about current things, we talk about things that affect their lives. I will always do the right thing by the Australian people.

JONES:

Alright Mr Howard. We will have to leave it there but thank you very much for taking the time to join us and we hope that you actually enjoy your Christmas break.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I hope that all Australians do and I know that all of us will be particularly thinking of those families who lost so much in the Bali tragedy, and the to community generally a very merry Christmas.

JONES:

John Howard, thank you.

[ends]

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