Philip Dorling (Fairfax):
AUSTRALIAN diplomats have no doubt the United States is intent on pursuing Julian Assange, Foreign Affairs and Trade Department documents obtained by the Herald show.
This is at odds with comments by the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, who has dismissed suggestions the US plans to eventually extradite Assange on charges arising from WikiLeaks obtaining leaked US military and diplomatic documents.
The Australian embassy in Washington has been tracking a US espionage investigation targeting the WikiLeaks publisher for more than 18 months.
The declassified diplomatic cables, released under freedom of information legislation, show Australia’s ambassador, the former Labor leader Kim Beazley, has made high level representations to the US government asking for advance warning of any moves to prosecute Assange.
Briefings for the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and Senator Carr also suggest the Australian government has no in-principle objection to extradition.
On Thursday, Ecuador granted Assange political asylum at its London embassy on the grounds that, if extradited to Sweden to be questioned about sexual assault allegations, he would be at risk of further extradition to the US to face espionage or conspiracy charges.
Assange sought refuge at the embassy two months ago following the dismissal of his final legal appeal against extradition to Sweden.
Senator Carr has repeatedly dismissed suggestions that the US has any interest in prosecuting and extraditing Assange. In June, Senator Carr also told the ABC Insiders program: “I’ve received no hint that they’ve got a plan to extradite him . . . I would expect that the US would not want to touch this.”
However, the Australian embassy in Washington reported in February that “the US investigation into possible criminal conduct by Mr Assange has been ongoing for more than a year”.
The embassy identified a wide range of criminal charges the US could bring against Assange, including espionage, conspiracy, unlawful access to classified information and computer fraud.
Australian diplomats expect that any charges against Assange would be carefully and narrowly drawn in an effort to avoid conflict with the First Amendment free speech provisions of the US Constitution.
The released diplomatic cables also show that the Australian government considers the prospect of extradition sufficiently likely that, on direction from Canberra, Mr Beazley sought high level US advice on “the direction and likely outcome of the investigation” and “reiterated our request for early advice of any decision to indict or seek extradition of Mr Assange”.
The question of advance warning of any prosecution or extradition moves was previously raised by Australian diplomats in December 2010 when they first confirmed that Assange was the target of what US Justice Department officials described as an “unprecedented” investigation.
The Australians on that occasion explained that the advance warning would be appreciated ”so that ministers could respond appropriately”.
American responses to the embassy’s representations have been withheld from release on the grounds that disclosure could “cause damage to the international relations of the Commonwealth”.
Large sections of the released cables have been redacted on national security grounds, including parts of reports on the open pre-court martial proceedings of US Army Private Bradley Manning, who is alleged to have leaked a vast quantity of classified information to WikiLeaks.
Australian diplomats have highlighted the US military prosecution’s reference to “several connections between [Private] Manning and WikiLeaks which would form the basis of a conspiracy charge” and evidence that the Justice Department’s investigation has targeted the ”founders, owners, or managers of WikiLeaks” for espionage.
However, the embassy was unable to confirm a claim in a leaked email from the US intelligence firm Stratfor that “[we] have a sealed indictment against Assange”. “There is no way to confirm the veracity of the information through official sources,” the embassy reported to Canberra in February.
Briefings for both Senator Carr and Ms Gillard suggest that the Australian government has no in-principle objection to Assange’s extradition to the US.
In response to any question on whether the government will guarantee that if Assange were able to return to Australia he would not be extradited to the US, the ministers were to simply say that it is “not appropriate” to comment in advance of “a formal determination on the merits of the case”.
Senator Carr’s office yesterday continued to insist Ecuador’s asylum decision and Assange’s circumstances remained a matter for Britain, Ecuador and Sweden.