Inquiry finds no political interference in missing Iraq War documents

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It wasn’t political interference that caused dozens of Howard-era cabinet papers to go missing instead of being released, but rather administrative errors and poor systems, a report has found.

An independent review was launched earlier this month into why 82 documents from 2003 were not handed over to the National Archives in 2020, with questions raised over whether there had been political influence, particularly given some of the lost documents related to the Iraq War.

Under the National Archives Act, cabinet records are to be released after 20 years of being kept secret.

The review found that the Covid-19 pandemic had become a “catalyst for a major breakdown” in the routine transfer of cabinet documents from years prior being handed over to the archives on the first day of the year.

Report author, former senior public servant Dennis Richardson AC, found administrative errors and internal systemic issues were compounded by the pandemic.

“The particular pandemic-driven work environment of 2020 became the catalyst for a major breakdown which, given the compounding systemic issues, was probably inevitable at some point,” the report read.

Thirteen of the documents related to the Howard government’s contentious decision to join the “coalition of the willing” to fight alongside the US in the Iraq War.

One of the internal issues found by the inquiry was that several documents were locked away in cabinets that no one was able to access. One of these was related to the Iraq War.

“The four additional cabinet records were located in a sealed envelope, inside a class C container, within a special security room inside a restricted area of PM&C,” Mr Richardson’s report said.

“The review was reliant on appropriately security cleared staff to access the physical location, none of which were immediately present.

“Following access, the room itself contained several cabinets which no one person within cabinet division had access.

“The material within the room holding cabinet records was poorly itemised, tailor-made for a mistake in a future transfer process from [the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet] to the National Archives.”

The National Archive is now “satisfied” that all of the 82 cabinet documents have been transferred.

Mr Richardson made five recommendations to ensure the same mistake isn’t made again, which the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet says they are implementing.