Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (13:15):
I rise to make a few comments on the WikiLeaks publishing organisation and its editor-in-chief, Julian Assange. Although most people probably had not come across WikiLeaks until its stunning series of document releases in 2010, the organisation has been around since 2006. Its key innovation is a secret drop-box where whistleblowers can provide documents to journalists, and the journalists do not necessarily know who the sources are. That is, I think, the key innovation of this organisation-a journalist cannot be hauled into court and forced to disclose who their source is, because they do not know who it is.
WikiLeaks, despite having existed and done valuable work for a number of years, did not really burst into public consciousness until 2010 with the release of a collateral murder video which shows US forces quite casually obliterating a city block, killing a Reuters journalist and his associates and then seriously wounding a number of children who happened to be in a van that drove up to try to clean up and take the bodies out of the combat zone. Subsequently, the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs provided us with a glimpse into the conduct of these wars, one of which Australia is still engaged in. In the Afghan war logs we discovered that there had been 114 incidents of coalition military attacks on civilians. Ninety-one thousand field reports were made public. Many of them are mundane, but many of them also give us an extraordinary insight into how war is fought in the 21st century.
There are revelations in the Afghan war logs-and in the Iraq war logs, which were released a short time later-of war crimes on the part of our ally the United States. Iraq Body Count, the London-based group that monitored civilian casualties during the Iraq conflict says that it identified around 15,000 previously unknown and unreported civilian deaths from the data contained in the leaked war logs. Iraq Body Count discovered that US authorities were systematically failing to investigate hundreds of reports of torture and rape and of extrajudicial killing by Iraqi police and military forces. The conduct was systematic and completely unpunished, and the Australian public, who were taken into the disastrous and illegal war in Iraq, did not know about it because the material had failed to make its way into the press and onto the public record.
Late in 2010 occurred probably the most important release to date-depending on how you see these things-when the publication of State Department cables put the WikiLeaks organisation and its editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, onto the front page of the world’s newspapers. The State Department cables give us a different view: an insight into how global diplomacy is conducted. They contain interesting things about Australian political personalities and about the conduct of ministers-foreign ministers in particular-and they give us a window into how the United States conducts its activities around the world.
It should be said, of course, that WikiLeaks does not exist to undermine the United States government. Mr Assange is on the record-and I paraphrase here-as saying, ‘The more you have to hide, the more you have to fear. Regimes such as China, which do not have the democratic protections that exist here in Australia and even in the United States, have more to fear: there are more secrets there, so there is more to be disclosed.’ Indeed, the first serious revelations which WikiLeaks was able to publish in partnership with other media organisations were about Kenya. There is nothing necessarily anti-American going on here, but leaks are emerging from within the United States military and diplomatic corps that shine a spotlight on how the US government works and just how far the spin is from reality.
For its extraordinary and important work WikiLeaks has been correctly recognised as a publishing organisation and its editor-in-chief as a journalist. As recently as late last year the Walkley Foundation awarded Mr Assange the Walkley award for most outstanding contribution to journalism in 2011. The ruling of 2 November 2011 by the Queen’s Bench division of the British High Court acknowledged that Mr Assange is a journalist and WikiLeaks a publishing organisation. Right around the world-in Italy and in Spain and in the form of the Amnesty International UK media award 2009-it has been acknowledged that WikiLeaks is a publishing outfit and that this organisation has nothing to do with terrorism.
Senior US administration figures are on record as saying that no essential damage has been done to US interests as a result of the activities of WikiLeaks. On 11 August 2011, a spokesman for the Pentagon told the Washington Post:
We have yet to see any harm come to anyone in Afghanistan that we can directly tie to exposure in the Wikileaks documents.
Moreover, an Australian Department of Defence investigation concluded in October 2010 that the leaked documents had ‘not had a direct significant adverse impact on Australia’s national interests.’ That assessment has been backed up by the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who have been downplaying the impact of the releases and saying that they have not in fact affected US security interests.
Nonetheless, there is a fierce campaign afoot to destroy WikiLeaks: to discredit Mr Assange and his associates and colleagues and to set the organisation back-in fact, to simply destroy it. We discovered a great deal about this last night when five million emails from the private American security organisation Stratfor were released in the latest document drop by WikiLeaks. Stratfor’s Vice President for Counterterrorism and Corporate Security is a gentleman named Fred Burton. He is a former deputy chief of the Department of State’s counterterrorism division, so there has obviously been a revolving door in the United States-many of Stratfor’s staff have come to it from the US intelligence and defence community.
In early 2011, Burton revealed in an internal Stratfor correspondence that there had been an indictment made by the secret grand jury which, as we were aware, had been empanelled in the United States. This email, which is from Australia Day 2011, reads:
Not for Pub-we have a sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect.
In a later email he says:
Assange is going to make a nice bride in prison. Screw the terrorist. He’ll be eating cat forever.
Charming! Further emails reveal that the strategies that were enabled by things like the US Patriot Act which were implemented by the Bush and Cheney administration after the attacks of 9-11 were being used not simply to track down and destroy terrorist networks but to track down and destroy media organisations. This further email says:
Take down the money. Go after his infrastructure. The tool we are using to nail and de-construct Wiki are the same tools used to dismantle and track aQ [Al Qaeda]. Thank Cheney & 43-
meaning the 43rd President of the United States. It continues:
Big Brother owns his liberal terrorist arse.
Ferreting out [Julian Assange’s] confederates is also key. Find out what other disgruntled rogues inside the tent or outside [sic]. Pile on. Move him from country to country to face various charges for the next 25 years. But, seize everything he and his family own, to include every person linked to Wiki.
You thought Team America was fiction, but that is how these people appear to behave behind the scenes in emails that they do not think will be read by the general public.
There has been a targeted campaign of character assassination in the public realm that ties in with this secret process of a grand jury indictment. Now we know, from an email that was sent on Australia Day last year, that such an indictment exists. That means the United States can potentially move to extradite Mr Assange from Sweden if he ends up there, from the UK if he remains there or from Australia-in fact, from any country with which the United States has an extradition agreement.
The campaign to destroy the WikiLeaks organisation needs to stop. This is a publishing organisation and it is essential that we know that the Australian government has done, and intends to do, everything that it can to protect Mr Assange and the organisation.
There is one further email from Stratfor for the Senate to consider. Burton says that he will:
… pursue [c]onspiracy and [p]olitical [t]errorism charges of declassified the death of a source someone which [he] could link to Wiki.
Burton’s strategy is to:
… [b]ankrupt the arsehole … ruin his life. Give him 7-12 years for conspiracy.
That is absolutely key. At the point where this indictment was meant to hit the table, all of a sudden by pure coincidence the world’s newspapers would be carrying a story that a source named in one of the WikiLeaks documents, which were extensively redacted by the organisation, would be all over the front pages-that somebody had died as a result of the WikiLeaks drop. It is unbelievably cynical to pursue a strategy like that in order to try and destroy this organisation.
We need to know what the role of the Australian government in this has been. If a private security company in Texas has known for well over a year that this sealed indictment exists, did the United States government share that with its close ally Australia or not? The Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, whoever that currently is, and the Attorney-General have some very difficult questions to answer. I will be putting this question to the Prime Minister’s representative in this chamber shortly after two o’clock this afternoon. So I am putting the Prime Minister on notice now.
Is Australia ignorant in this matter or complicit? I do not see a great deal of room for splitting the difference. Did the United States government hide this information from the Australian Prime Minister and the Australian defence and intelligence community, keeping us ignorant about the fate of an Australian citizen and journalist, or did they disclose that information which makes Australia complicit in this unbelievable attack on a media organisation that has done nothing more than do what journalists are supposed to do-tell the truth about what is going on behind the scenes by people in power?
We have heard quite sensible comments from Senator Brandis. We have seen Mr Turnbull on the record. We have had Mr Rudd on the record saying, ‘People tearing up passports is my responsibility.’ We have no idea yet what the new foreign minister will say. We have not heard anything from our current Attorney-General.
Late last year I initiated a series of freedom of information requests. They have been stonewalled, they have been blocked, they have been frustrated and there have been excuses every couple of weeks about why it is so difficult to disclose this kind of information; so we do not yet know whether the Australian government is incompetent and ignorant or complicit. But if there is some other answer I would be very interested to find out what it is. We have put dozens of questions on notice to try to establish what the Australian government knew and it is time that the Australian government came clean. It is no longer acceptable for the Prime Minister to simply keep her head down and hope this will all go away, because push is about to come to shove, quite seriously.
Mr Assange has now been under house arrest for 448 days, an extraordinary period of time, during which the organisation has continued to do extraordinarily valuable work in feeding the world’s media news organisations with the primary source documentation for story after story after story. So if Mr Assange is complicit and has committed crimes then so is the editor of the New York Times and the Guardian and the people who write for Australia’s Fairfax press and the ABC. We are all implicated in this.
There is one final email that I want to quote from which I think really underlines the importance of the Australian government stepping up now, today, in defence of this Australian citizen:
… that they are going after the confederates, they are going after the network, they are after everybody who has ever had anything to do with WikiLeaks.
I am one of those. I met Mr Assange late last year. He has met with many news editors, he has met with journalists from all over the world and he has helped them do their job. So we are all implicated in this. If you are hearing this from the press gallery, the people who signed on to the Walkley Foundation’s sign-on letter last year, publishing organisations around the world and around the country, an attack on this organisation is an attack on all of us. If the world is not safe for an organisation like WikiLeaks, then it is not safe for any of us.
I am calling on the Australian government to come clean about what it knows and do what it quite rightly did in the instance of the boy in Bali who found himself in serious legal trouble when he was caught in possession of a small quantity of marijuana. The Australian government put people on planes, they sent assistance, phones rang and people got onto the Indonesian authorities to make sure that that boy had the best consular and legal assistance that could possibly be made available to him, and rightly so. What we have seen in the case of Mr Julian Assange, who is working as a journalist and has provided some of the most important revelations on the conduct of war and commerce and diplomacy in modern history, is silence. It is time that that silence was lifted.