Mixed messages … Foreign Minister Bob Carr. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
NINE days ago, the office of the Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, sent written questions to the minister's department seeking advice for a TV interview Carr would record the following evening on the ''Prisoner X'' case.
The department responded with a carefully considered, written briefing that Carr duly delivered in the ABC interview and which his spokesman repeated in essence to Fairfax Media on Wednesday morning.
The government, Carr said, did not know that 34-year-old Melbourne man Ben Zygier had been imprisoned by Israeli authorities until after he had died and his family had asked for his body to be repatriated. The interview was packaged into Foreign Correspondent's explosive report claiming Zygier was the notorious ''Prisoner X'', a mystery inmate held in solitary confinement at Israel's maximum-security Ayalon Prison.
''On my advice,'' Carr said, ''the Australian government was not informed of his detention by his family or anyone else''.
On Wednesday afternoon, Carr's office began calling journalists to retract the statement. And on Thursday morning, Carr admitted to a Senate estimates hearing that some officials in his department had learnt from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation on February 24, 2010, that Zygier had been jailed because of ''serious offences under Israeli national security legislation'' - nearly 10 months before he died.
How did his department get its pre-interview briefing so wrong? The answer goes to the heart of the arcane relationships between Australia's intelligence services, the bureaucracy and their political masters.
To say the ''Australian government'' knew nothing of Zygier's detention was meaningless. Granted, plenty of people in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - at least the consular section that Carr says he consulted - did not know.
Yet ASIO, which had already been watching Zygier on suspicion he was working for Israeli external security agency Mossad, knew via its liaison in the Tel Aviv embassy that he had been arrested and jailed, and appears to have told a select few people in DFAT.
Whether or not then minister Stephen Smith was told is unclear - though it may be answered by an investigation Carr has ordered into DFAT's handling of the affair.
The acting ambassador in the Tel Aviv embassy in early 2010, Nicoli Maning-Campbell, was not informed, according to DFAT boss Peter Varghese's testimony to the Senate estimates hearing on Thursday. Muddying the issue further, sources have told Fairfax Media that ASIO did however inform the new permanent ambassador, Andrea Faulkner, who took up her post the following month and is still in the job.
What the messy information flow meant for Ben Zygier is that he did not receive any consular assistance from Australian officials. This problem was compounded by the soured relations between ASIO and Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet over Israel's use of fraudulent Australian passports in the assassination of a Palestinian militant leader the previous month.
Instead, the government - that is, the arms of the government that actually knew about the case - ''relied upon'' the Israelis' assurances that Zygier was being well-treated and had access to legal counsel, Carr told the Senate hearing.
No Australian consular official tried to visit him in jail. Carr has ordered that his department review its handling of the case - an investigation that will take in not just what happened in 2010 but how the department failed to furnish Senator Carr with the right information more than two years later. The answers should arrive late next week.