This article has been updated on 3 May 2012 – see below
After dodging and delaying FOI requests about its consideration of the case of Julian Assange for months, the government has blocked the release of any material that would reveal its internal legal deliberations over Assange’s extradition to the United States.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam made an FOI application to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General’s Department and their respective ministerial offices in December seeking documents relating to “the potential extradition or temporary surrender” of Assange to the US.
The response of the government has been a litany of excuses and self-justifications.
After several months, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is still seeking to avoid responding. In March, DFAT said it would take them a remarkable four months to process the request and demanded that Ludlam justify why a request for documents about Assange’s extradition was a matter in the public interest. At the end of March, DFAT demanded another 30 days on top of the four months, on the basis that they’d only just realised they would have to consult with foreign governments over the request.
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet quickly fobbed off the request entirely by claiming that the request “would unreasonably divert the resources of the department”, an excuse permitted under s.24 of the FOI Act.
So far only Attorney-General’s has responded, after trying to unsuccessfully convince the Information Commissioner to re-extend the deadline for responding, and actually breaching the response deadline. The result (PDF), when it finally arrived in late March, featured extensive use of the famous black highlighter and bordered on nonsensical.
Among the treasures served up by Attorney-General’s were:
- Emails relating to AGD secretary Roger Wilkins questions about Assange’s extradition, redacted to the point of meaninglessness, on the basis of “legal professional privilege”;
- Detailed advice to Wilkins about Assange’s extradition, including the issue of his facing the death penalty, was entirely redacted (legal professional privilege)
- A question time brief for Robert McClelland, in which both the talking points and the background material is almost entirely redacted because it “could cause damage to Australia’s international relations”
- Emails between departmental staff about a request from McClelland’s office for “lines” for use in response to possible questions about Assange after a newspaper article.
- Correspondence from people concerned about the issue and media articles
- Some of the Greens’ own correspondence and notices of motion, one of which was bizarrely redacted despite being a public document.
The redactions prevent any assessment of what exactly the government knows about the US government’s sealed indictment for Assange. The government has played dumb on the issue, publicly declaring it knows nothing about the matter, despite it apparently being common knowledge in Washington circles (as revealed by the Stratfor emails) that a sealed indictment against Assange had been issued.
Late today the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sought an additional month to respond to Senator Ludlam’s FOI request “on the basis that continuing international consultation and the complexity of decision-making required prior to finalising the documents for release.” The continuing consultation raises the possibility of the US or Swedish governments seeking to veto the release of documents under Freedom of Information. DFAT’s deadline for responding will, if the Office of the Information Commissioner agrees, be extended to 3 June (DFAT has withdrawn the claim that it will take it 4 months to process the request). The new deadline effectively ensures that the Australian Government’s position vis-à-vis Assange won’t be revealed before the outcome of his appeal against his European Arrest Warrant is concluded.