October 18, 2012 – 12:06AM – Philip Dorling
WikiLeaks and Julian Assange have been the subject of intelligence exchanges between Australia and the United States for more than two years, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has revealed.
The WikiLeaks publisher was also the subject of Australian intelligence reporting from Washington shortly before he sought political asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy.
In a freedom of information decision yesterday, Foreign Affairs confirmed to Fairfax Media the existence of an intelligence report concerning WikiLeaks and Mr Assange cabled to Canberra from Australia’s Washington embassy on June 1.
Mr Assange, who had been unsuccessful in his legal fight to avoid extradition from the United Kingdom to Sweden to face questioning about sexual assault allegations, sought political asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy 18 days later.
Foreign Affairs has also confirmed that US-Australia intelligence exchanges on WikiLeaks date back more than two years by revealing the existence of two intelligence reports sent from Washington to Canberra on August 4 and 25, 2010, in the immediate aftermath of the transparency website’s publication of secret US military reports on the war in Afghanistan.
The secret Washington embassy cables have been withheld from release because they are “intelligence agency documents” that are exempt from disclosure under freedom of information law.
All of Australia’s intelligence agencies are represented in the Washington embassy and liaise closely with their US counterparts.
One newly released Australian diplomatic cable also shows that the Washington embassy did receive confidential information concerning the involvement of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation in investigations targeting WikiLeaks as early as 29 or 30 July 2010.
However the details of this exchange have been redacted by Foreign Affairs on the grounds that disclosure of “assessments or comments by foreign officials” would damage Australia’s international relations.
Other Australian diplomatic cables previously released to Fairfax Media reveal that in December 2010 the embassy 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”.
US officials told the embassy “the WikiLeaks case was unprecedented both in its scale and nature”.
In another document released by Foreign Affairs, former Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd wrote on November 15, 2011, to seek former Attorney-General Robert McClelland’s view on reports that “the most likely route to a successful prosecution would be to show that Mr Assange had acted as a co-conspirator – soliciting, encouraging or assisting [US Army private] Bradley Manning, to obtain and provide the documents”.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr has repeatedly denied any knowledge of any intention by Washington to prosecute Mr Assange, saying in June: “I’ve received no hint that they’ve got a plan to extradite him to the US … I would expect that the US would not want to touch this.”
The latest freedom of information release to Fairfax Media shows Australian diplomats have continued to attend and report in detail on the pre-trial proceedings for Private Manning who faces 22 charges relating to alleged leaking of classified information to WikiLeaks and, though such disclosures, “aiding the enemy”, a charge that could bring a life sentence.
On June 20, the Washington embassy reported the failure of Private Manning’s defence team to obtain access to records of the US federal grand jury reported to be engaged with the Justice Department’s investigation of espionage and related offences relating to WikiLeaks’ obtaining classified documents.
However related “sensitive” information in the embassy’s report has been redacted, on the grounds once more that release could damage Australia’s relations with the United States.
Ecuador ‘s president Rafael Correa granted Mr Assange political asylum on August 16, saying that if Mr Assange was extradited to Sweden he would be at risk of further extradition to the US to face espionage or conspiracy charges.
Discussions between British Foreign Secretary William Haig and his Ecuadorean counterpart Ricardo Patino, in New York on September 27, failed to break the diplomatic and legal impasse over Mr Assange’s status.
The British Government says it is legally obliged to extradite Assange to Sweden, and that it will not allow him to leave Ecuador’s embassy and travel to the South American country.