Philip Dorling, December 3, 2011
WikiLeaks is the target of an ”unprecedented” US government criminal investigation, Australian diplomatic cables obtained by the Herald reveal.
The cables also show the Australian government wants to be forewarned about moves to extradite Julian Assange to the United States, but that Australian diplomats raised no concerns about him being pursued by prosecutors on charges of espionage and conspiracy.
The cables, released under freedom of information to the Herald this week, show Australian diplomats have been talking to the US Justice Department for more than a year about US criminal investigations of WikiLeaks and Mr 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 the Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd, told Parliament the government was ”not aware of any current extradition request [for Mr Assange] by US authorities” and has ”no formal advice” on a US grand jury investigation directed at WikiLeaks.
On Monday, Mr 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.
Mr Rudd avoided a direct answer to a question about whether Mr Assange could be subject to a ”temporary surrender” mechanism that could allow him to be extradited from Sweden to the US. US Army Private Bradley Manning has been charged with ”aiding the enemy” by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified government documents, published by WikiLeaks since February 2010.
Newly released Department of Foreign Affairs 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”.
Australian diplomats called on the Assistant Attorney-General for National Security, David Kris, to request ”advance warning of any public announcement of the results of US investigations or proposed actions”. Mr Kris replied he would take that ”reasonable” request ”up the line”.
In a subsequent detailed assessment, the 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 Private Manning, the embassy said: ”Evidence of such a conspiracy could assist prosecutors rebut claims that WikiLeaks was acting merely as a media organisation.”