Philip Dorling, December 3, 2011
WikiLeaks is the target of an ”unprecedented” US government criminal investigation, Australian diplomatic cables obtained by The Saturday Age reveal.
The declassified cables also show the Australian government wants to be forewarned about any moves to extradite Julian Assange to the United States, but that Australian diplomats have raised no concerns about the Australian journalist being pursued by US prosecutors on charges of espionage and conspiracy.
The cables, released under freedom of information to The Saturday Age this week, reveal that Australian diplomats have been talking to the US Justice Department for more than a year about US criminal investigations of WikiLeaks and Assange. While the Justice Department has been reluctant to disclose details of the WikiLeaks probe, the Australian embassy in Washington reported in December 2010 that the investigation was ”unprecedented both in its scale and nature” and that media reports that a secret grand jury had been convened in Alexandria, Virginia, were ”likely true”.
Last week Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd told Federal Parliament that the Australian government is ”not aware of any current extradition request [for Assange] by US authorities” and has ”no formal advice” concerning a US grand jury investigation directed at WikiLeaks.
On Monday Assange will learn whether he will be allowed a further legal appeal against his extradition from Britain to Sweden to be questioned about sexual molestation allegations.
The Foreign Minister avoided a direct answer to a question about whether Assange could be subject to a ”temporary surrender” mechanism that could allow him to be extradited from Sweden to the United States.
US Army Private Bradley Manning has been charged with ”aiding the enemy” by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified US government documents, published by WikiLeaks since February 2010.
The newly released DFAT documents show that on December 7 last year the Australian embassy in Washington confirmed the US Justice Department was conducting an ”active and vigorous inquiry into whether Julian Assange can be charged under US law, most likely the 1917 Espionage Act”.
Although US officials were not prepared to share the particulars of the criminal investigation, they said ”the WikiLeaks case was unprecedented both in its scale and nature”.
Australian diplomats called on a more senior US official, Assistant Attorney-General for National Security David Kris on December 10 to request ”advance warning of any public announcement of the results of US investigations or proposed actions”. Mr Kris replied that he would take that ”reasonable” request for advance warning ”up the line”, though he ”warned that advance notice sometimes caused problems later, when it became public that the government had been provided with advance warning”. The Australians said they would still appreciate advance notice ”so that ministers could respond appropriately”.
In a subsequent detailed assessment based on discussions with a range of US sources and legal experts, the Washington embassy observed that ”a central theme has been the question of whether WikiLeaks is a media organisation … The general view of expert commentators is that a prosecution could not be successful unless it showed in court that WikiLeaks was not a media organisation since the history of these cases has never seen a media outlet convicted for publication of leaked documents.”
Noting reports that the Justice Department was investigating alleged technical assistance provided to Manning, the embassy added: ”Evidence of such a conspiracy could assist prosecutors rebut claims that WikiLeaks was acting merely as a media organisation.”
The Washington embassy reports are among heavily redacted documents relating to WikiLeaks, released after a nine-month delay that was branded ”unacceptable” by the FOI watchdog, Information Commissioner James Popple.