Philip Dorling – March 31, 2012
THE Australian government has renewed its attacks on WikiLeaks, condemning the group for “reckless” disclosures of secret information.
The Foreign Affairs Department has also delayed release, under freedom of information, of sensitive Australian diplomatic cables relating to Julian Assange until after a legal challenge to the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition to Sweden has been decided.
The delay follows expressions of concern by United States authorities about disclosure of US-Australian discussions about WikiLeaks.
Last week an Attorney-General’s Department executive responsible for international crime and extradition matters renewed the government’s condemnation of WikiLeaks’ release of leaked US diplomatic cables as “reckless, irresponsible and potentially dangerous”.
Writing on behalf of Attorney-General Nicola Roxon to a constituent of a federal Labor MP, international crime co-operation branch head Anna Harmer insisted that “debate about the WikiLeaks matter is not about censoring free speech or preventing the media from reporting news” and confirmed the government’s focus on the “reckless … unauthorised disclosure of classified material”.
Mr Assange, who plans to run for a Senate seat in the next election, is awaiting a British Supreme Court decision on his appeal against extradition to Sweden to be questioned about sexual assault allegations.
He fears extradition to Stockholm will lead to extradition to the US on espionage or conspiracy charges. This week he also expressed concern that a successful appeal against extradition to Sweden would only be followed by the US seeking his extradition direct from Britain.
Last December The Saturday Age obtained Foreign Affairs Department cables that revealed WikiLeaks was the target of an ”unprecedented” US criminal investigation and that the Australian government wanted to be warned about moves to extradite Mr Assange to the US.
The cables showed that as early as December 2010, the Australian embassy in Washington confirmed the US Justice Department was examining whether Mr Assange could be charged under US law, most likely the 1917 Espionage Act.
The Saturday Age has now learnt from Australian government sources that senior US officials subsequently expressed concern about the disclosure of information and asked to be “more closely consulted” on further FOI releases.
Foreign Affairs this week delayed release under freedom of information of more Washington embassy cables about WikiLeaks until at least late May, nearly six months after The Saturday Age lodged an FOI application.
Foreign Affairs’ FOI director David Yardley said in an email to the office of the Australian Information Commissioner: “Some cables in this case are highly classified, some are not … Working out precisely where the sensitivities lie within cables, particularly in light of the potential ‘mosaic effect’ of releases of this type of information, is usually, including in this case, an involved, complex task.”
Mr Yardley revealed that Foreign Affairs was yet to finalise consultation with Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s department and had not begun consultation with the US on the possible release of material, a process expected to take at least four to six weeks.