August 18, 2012 — Sydney Morning Herald
AUSTRALIAN diplomats have no doubt the United States is still gunning for Julian Assange, according to Foreign Affairs Department documents obtained by The Saturday Age.
The Australian embassy in Washington has been tracking a US espionage investigation targeting the WikiLeaks publisher for more than 18 months.
Australia’s ambassador to the US, former Labor leader Kim Beazley, has made high-level representations to the American government, asking for warning of any moves to prosecute Assange. However, briefings for Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Senator Carr suggest the Australian Government has no in-principle objection to Assange’s 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 will be at risk of further extradition to the US to face espionage or conspiracy charges.
Last night, the diplomatic standoff continued. Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain would not allow Assange safe passage out of the country, ”nor is there any legal basis for us to do so”. However, he later told reporters ”there is no threat here to storm an embassy”.
WikiLeaks announced on Twitter that Assange would give a statement outside the embassy tomorrow. Meanwhile, one of his defence lawyers said he would appeal to the International Court of Justice if Britain prevented him from going to Ecuador.
In May, Senator Carr told a Senate estimates committee hearing: “We have no advice that the US has an intention to extradite Mr Assange … nothing we have been told suggests that the US has such an intention.”
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 noted media reports that a US federal grand jury had been empanelled in Alexandria, Virginia, to pursue the WikiLeaks case and that US government officials “cannot lawfully confirm to us the existence of the grand jury”.
Despite this, and apparently on the basis of still classified off-the-record discussions with US officials and private legal experts, the embassy reported the existence of the grand jury as a matter of fact. It 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 drawn in an effort to avoid conflict with the First Amendment free speech provisions of the US constitution.
The 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.
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 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 embassy representatives have attended all of Private Manning’s pre-trial hearings.
Australian diplomats have highlighted the prosecution’s reference to “several connections between Manning and WikiLeaks which would form the basis of a conspiracy charge” and evidence that the investigation has targeted the “founders, owners, or managers of WikiLeaks” for espionage.
However, the embassy was unable to confirm the claim in a leaked email from an executive with US private intelligence company Stratfor, that “[w]e have a sealed indictment against Assange”.
“Commentators have … suggested that the source may have been referring to a draft indictment used by prosecutors to ‘game out’ possible charges,” the embassy reported in February. “There is no way to confirm the veracity of the information through official sources.”
A spokesperson for Senator Carr said yesterday Assange’s circumstances remained a matter for the UK, Ecuador and Sweden, with Australia’s role limited to that of a consular observer.