Friday, June 03, 2005

Archival Rescue 52 ~ False alerts "terrorism"

Howard and Downer stung. "Ramping up of emotion" unpopular;

Howard accused of over-reacting to letter scare

By Cynthia Banham and Anne Davies
June 3, 2005 Sydney Morning Herald

The Government's rapid response to the embassy scare has met a mixed response, with some saying it was an over-reaction.

Clive Williams, a terrorism expert at the Australian National University, said he believed the Government had mishandled the incident in unnecessarily linking it to the Schapelle Corby case.

The offices of the Prime Minister and of the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, confirmed yesterday that they had linked the letter - written in Indonesian - to protests over Corby's drug-smuggling conviction in Bali before being briefed on a translation of its contents, which are not believed to contain any direct reference to her.

Mr Williams also criticised Mr Downer for referring to the substance in the letter sent to the embassy as a "biological agent", saying it had resulted in a "ramping up" of emotion in Australia and in the foreign press.

He said although anthrax occurred naturally, lethal forms of the substance had only been produced in state laboratories, and not even terrorist groups had managed to manufacture it.

Bacteria belonging to the bacillus groups - as the original analysis of the material indicated it was - exists in most households and is harmless.

Mr Williams said that "coming out and saying biological agent" was "basically just irresponsible", and that describing it as just "white powder" that was being investigated by the Australian Federal Police would have been sufficient.

Another terrorism expert from Monash University, David Wright-Neville, said he believed the Federal Government "did what it had to do".

"I don't think it was an over-reaction," he said. "You have to err on the side of caution with this kind of thing. The last thing you want is to underplay it and have a major diplomatic incident.

"[Sending the letter is] an outrageous and stupid thing to do and I think the Government responded in the only way it could."

But Mr Wright-Neville said he was "a little surprised" by the speed with which the Government described the substance as a biological agent and revealed that the letter to the Indonesian ambassador had been posted from Victoria.

The Opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, Kevin Rudd, and the Premier, Bob Carr, visited the Indonesian ambassador at his residence in Canberra yesterday.

Mr Carr said he expressed his "commiserations" to the ambassador "about what was a frightening incident".

"I told him it is important to stress that, despite the Corby case, Australia is interested in having a good relationship with Indonesia - strategic, economic and personal exchanges - and that has to be reinforced," he said.

"His spirits were good. I told him Indonesia has a lot of friends in Australia.

"We have to curb anti-Indonesian sentiment that has taken hold in parts of the Australian population."


Wednesday, 10.28am
ACT police receive call from the Indonesian embassy about suspect biological material.

By noon Sample being examined in Canberra hospital.

2.20pm Foreign Minister Alexander Downer tells Parliament the AFP "are investigating a possible suspicious package that was received this morning by the Indonesian embassy".

3.11pm Downer says package contained a "biological agent".

4-5pm The Prime Minister, John Howard, says: "It would be the first time, if the preliminary results are confirmed, that such a biological agent has been sent in Australia … It certainly won't help Schapelle Corby."

6.40pm Howard tells A Current Affair he was told the letter contained bacillus bacteria, some forms of which are linked to anthrax.

7-8pm Federal Police believed to have become aware tests suggest the substance in the letter was almost certainly not an active bacteria.

10.31pm: All Indonesian staff taken home by bus.

Yesterday, 8.08am
Downer: "I can confirm there was a message … I haven't seen a translation of it yet, but … the parcel was sent from Victoria."

12.35pm ACT chief police officer John Davies says: "Very unlikely that the substance contained any bacteria of significant pathological significance."

6.23pm Anthrax ruled out.


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