Philip Dorling, December 3, 2011
Fresh files reveal Labor’s fruitless efforts to get the US cables, writes Philip Dorling.
On the morning of November 25, 2010, Jane Hardy, the head of the US branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sent an urgent email to the office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Kevin Rudd was about to take a call from the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
The department already knew the reason for the call. The previous day, US officials had alerted the Australian embassy in Washington that the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, led by Australian Julian Assange, was about to release a trove of leaked US diplomatic cables revealing what American diplomats thought of countries, governments and political leaders around the world.
Hardy’s email, one of many documents relating to WikiLeaks released under freedom-of-information laws by the department this week, provided Rudd’s office with some hastily drafted talking points to sum up the Australian government’s immediate reaction to the public deluge of US diplomatic secrets: ”WikiLeaks phenomenon has been damaging to us all. If WikiLeaks carries out its threat to start releasing State Department documents … [We] expect this could complicate relations (potentially with allies and friends, as well as adversaries). [We] intend to work closely with [US Department of] State and co-ordinate responses.”
The Australian government had, in fact, already moved into crisis mode. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet had that morning convened a top-level interdepartmental committee on WikiLeaks, chaired by the deputy national security adviser, Margot McCarthy.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was warned and urgent efforts were made to ”gain firsthand access to the cables to conduct our own analysis”.
However, the released department cables confirm Australian requests for direct access to leaked US cables before publication, although strongly supported by the US embassy in Canberra, were rebuffed by the State Department.
The secretary of DFAT, Dennis Richardson, later acknowledged it took ”a frustrating amount of time” before US officials provided a detailed briefing on likely disclosures concerning Australia, and Australian diplomats were ”spectacularly unsuccessful” in trying to obtain advance access to the cables. The US-Australia ”special relationship” does have its limits.
On December 8, the Herald began publishing stories based on US embassy cables from WikiLeaks on a range of politically embarrassing and diplomatically sensitive topics.
These included highly critical US assessments of the former prime minister Rudd; Rudd’s suspicions of China’s growing power and influence; Senator Mark Arbib’s confidential contacts with the US embassy; confidential US assessments of trade union influence in the federal Labor government; the former Labor leader Kim Beazley’s private view that Australia must fight with the US in the event of future conflict with China; secret Australian government concerns about the war in Afghanistan; intelligence assessments that the al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah terrorist groups had been effectively broken; Australian concerns Israel may attack Iran’s nuclear facilities; and secret deals to expand Australian-US military and intelligence co-operation.
Many of the Australian diplomatic cables relating to WikiLeaks now released by DFAT document the global impact as the torrent of US diplomatic secrets angered, embarrassed and confused political leaders; in some cases triggering major political turmoil, in other instances hitting a wall of ”no comment” statements as diplomats and politicians ducked for cover.
Just a few of the other secrets include US intelligence collection on top United Nations officials; that the US government worked to prevent investigations into rendition and torture at Guantanamo Bay; that the US used espionage and diplomatic threats to influence the outcome of the Copenhagen climate change conference; that the Vatican actively covered up sex abuse cases in Ireland; that Britain trained government death squads in Bangladesh; while the Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, agreed to help the US cover up an air strike that killed 21 children.
The Cablegate releases helped fuel the Arab Spring. One cable titled ”Corruption in Tunisia: what’s yours is mine”, validated widespread beliefs that the President, Ben Ali, and his wife’s family were the ”quasi-mafia” who had been in power too long. In Egypt, US cables revealed the FBI trained Egypt’s secret police, how Egyptians were victims of police brutality and how political activists and bloggers were routinely targeted and tortured.
Judging by Washington’s virulent condemnation of Assange, it might be assumed he was in the league of Osama bin Laden. However, the impact on US foreign policy was not as great as some commentary said.
Written for ”Australian Eyes Only” and sent to Canberra on December 2, 2010, an Australian embassy in Washington report acknowledged the documents had caused ”considerable embarrassment for US diplomacy and managing the impact on a wide range of relationships will be an ongoing challenge”.
The embassy said although ”the storm of negative publicity is likely to persist for some time … for all the embarrassment, the sky has not fallen in for US foreign policy.”
This relatively sanguine view appears to have been shared by US allies, including Britain, Canada and New Zealand, and indeed by the US State Department. Of course, the release of these carefully selected observations is consistent with the Australian government’s declared interest in supporting US influence.
WikiLeaks’s more enduring impact is more likely to be on the balance between the secrecy demanded by the growing national security complex in the US and among allies, and the freedom of the press to reveal ”inconvenient truths”.
On Monday, the British High Court will decide if Assange can pursue a further appeal against extradition to Sweden for questioning on sexual molestation charges. Whatever the result, he and WikiLeaks are likely to remain in the headlines and on the US government target list.