In late May, 2005, the Australian government was besieged by an outraged nation.
They were furious that a young Australian woman, Schapelle Corby, had been sentenced to 20 years jail in an Indonesian prison, convicted of smuggling four kilos of cannabis into Bali, barely concealed inside a boogie board bag.
During the trial, more than 90% of Australians came to believe Schapelle was innocent. Public opinion claiming that Schapelle Corby was not getting a fair trial in the Indonesian courts was virtually united. For more than two months, the debate about whether Schapelle Corby was innocent or guilty, and whether the Indonesian courts could be trusted to follow the rule of law in putting her on trial dominated the media and public discussion.
For many weeks, it appeared that Schapelle Corby would be executed by firing squad if she was found guilty of smuggling drugs into Bali.
The only evidence that existed to prove Schapelle Corby was guilty of drug smuggling was that the quantity of cannabis was found in one of her bags when she collected her luggage at Bali airport.
And yet, that very same day in Sydney, where her luggage in transit was unloaded from one plane and loaded onto another, known drug smugglers were using corrupt baggage handlers to bring kilos of cocaine into Australia.
Virtually everybody who heard about this curious coincidence smelled a rat. Except the federal government, that is, who backed Indonesia ceaselessly, and quietly blocked the gathering of crucial evidence to support Schapelle Corby's claims of innocence. All the while the prime minister and senior government ministers expressed sympathy for the young woman, and her family.
But the prime minister was resolute. He could not interfere in the justice system of Indonesia. If Schapelle was sentenced to die by firing squad, he could do little more than plead for mercy on her behalf.
On May 27, when Schapelle Corby was told by three judges that she was going to spend two decades in a Balinese prison, literally millions of Australians had stopped work and were glued to live broadcasts of the trial.
When the verdict, and 20 year sentence, was handed down, traumatised Australians gathered in offices, pubs and public spaces exploded into tears, screams of outrage and sobs of grief.
Word spread quickly via text, e-mail and word of mouth that massive protest rallies were going to be held in cities across Australia one week later to demand that Indonesia free Schapelle Corby and return her to Australia.
But the protest rallies never happened.
The pressure on the prime minister and his government was enormous. There seemed no way to calm down the public. Even key talkback radio hosts that the prime minister could usually rely on were backing the public outrage to the hilt.
On June 1, two days before the planned protests were to begin, the Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, solemnly announced in federal Parliament that a suspicious package of white powder had been sent to the Indonesian embassy in Canberra.
Downer then said, "The initial analysis of the powder has tested positive as a biological agent..."
After years of publicity surrounding white powder incidents in the United States, which suffered anonymous anthrax-mail attacks shortly after 9/11, most Australians who heard Downer's announcement, repeated on the evening news and throughout the afternoon on news radio, would have assumed anthrax was involved. Or something worse.
Prime Minister John Howard was quick in getting himself in front of the nation's media as well, announcing that same afternoon that whoever had sent the powder to the Indonesian embassy had acted with "murderous criminality".
When a reporter challenged Howard that test results, not yet then completed, might reveal the white powder to be "rather benign". the prime minister reacted with mock outrage.
"No," he snapped. "… the reference biological agent does not mean it's benign."
Another reporter asked the prime minister, "Do you believe that this is a result of the Corby conviction in Indonesia?"
The prime minister replied, "Well, it would be a remarkable coincidence if it were not..."
The key words were "a biological agent". It was a phrase used by both the prime minister and the foreign minister that afternoon and evening.
But neither the state or federal police, nor the government entity responsible for identifying the white powder told Howard or Downer that the white powder was "a biological agent".
The story that Australia had suffered its first bio-terror attack filled the evening and late night news, with further solemn, disturbing warnings from the prime minister and foreign minister, intercut with footage of terrified staff being evacuated from the Indonesian embassy, with 50 staff members being isolated for tests, filling the evening's current affairs programs.
Every daily newspaper in Australia carried the words "bio-terror attack" on their front pages the next morning, and the terrifying news filled that morning's television news cycle and was the sole subject of discussion on talkback radio.
All of this happened, and yet there was no official confirmation that the white powder was anthrax or "a biological agent" or even that it was dangerous.
It was the words alone of the prime minister and foreign minister that sparked Australia's biggest ever bio-terror scare.
But there was no bio-terror attack. It didn't happen.
And John Howard and Alexander Downer knew this by the early evening of June 1, even as they continued to link the 'white powder incident' with the public anger over the conviction of Schapelle Corby.
No newspaper and media outlets were contacted by Howard or Downer's media units that evening to correct the record, and to inform the media that the bio-terror attack had not actually taken place.
Nor did they inform the media that the description "biological agent" was the wrong one, even after they had been advised that this was so.
Howard and Downer chose instead to stay mute on all these facts and let the story run wild.
And the strategy worked.
By the afternoon of June 2, many Australians were convinced that the backers of the young woman convicted for smuggling drugs into Bali were dangerous, crazy people, who had launched a biological terror attack against the Indonesian embassy.
The momentum for the protest marches dissolved almost instantly, and support for the young woman plunged virtually overnight.
The scare was a complete success.
from the smh.com.au :
THE Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs sparked Australia's biggest biological terror scare last year when they distorted test results to claim white powder sent to the Indonesian embassy was a "biological agent".
Documents from ACT Pathology and the federal police, obtained under freedom of information laws, show the microbiologist who examined the powder on June 1 last year and the federal police never called it a "biological agent", and described it as a commonly occurring bacteria.
The documents also reveal that some days after testing began, the powder was shown to be flour.
...the Government did not tell the media that no threat had been identified. The following day newspapers and other media gave prominence to the Government's claims, running headlines saying the country had experienced a bio-terror attack.
Before announcing the powder had tested positive as a biological agent, Mr Downer warned Parliament the public attacks on Indonesia would cause "a good deal of anti-Australian sentiment in Indonesia"...
The Government's revelations that a biological agent had threatened the safety of Indonesians at the embassy sent shock waves through Corby's defence team. Her lawyers condemned it for damaging her chances of winning an appeal. After the public outcry over the biological agent, Corby never again enjoyed the public support she had previously received.
Mr Howard, Mr Downer, the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, and Senator Ellison have all failed to answer written questions on who came up with the term biological agent, generally used to describe diseases like anthrax, used in biological weapons to cause mass loss of life.