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Aug 29, 2012

US Ambassador: we have no interest in Assange

The US Ambassador to Australia has used an interview with Crikey to reflect on the impact of WikiLeaks, the constant speculation about Julian Assange and the lack of trust in governments globally.

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The US ambassador to Australia has insisted that the release by WikiLeaks of US diplomatic cables caused “serious and long-term damage” and placed people in harm’s way, but the only WikiLeaks-related investigation the US government is prepared to acknowledge is that of Bradley Manning.

In a wide-ranging interview with Crikey this week, Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich talked extensively about WikiLeaks and the rumoured investigation of Julian Assange.

“The US never talks about whether we’re conducting investigations of anyone, period,” the Ambassador said. “We have talked about investigations, for example, of Bradley Manning, for stealing classified information, but that’s because he’d been caught stealing classified information, been arrested, but generally we don’t talk about anyone, ever, whether they’re under investigation or anything else.

“People know we never say that, so they can say ‘well the US will not deny that it is investigating’. And then they say that if ‘they’re not denying it, it must be true’. There’s nothing to that at all.”

However, Bleich significantly left open the possibility that the investigation of Manning could lead elsewhere: “There’s an ongoing investigation of the Bradley Manning theft of classified information. Was anyone involved in a conspiracy, aiding and abetting, those sorts of things — and that’s reasonable, trying to see whether or not there are others, some liability out there.

“But it’s not that they pick someone, then figure out ‘oh now let’s see if we can find a crime’. They’re investigating a crime that did occur and they’re trying to figure out all the information that we can about it, how it occurred, and that could lead to other things.”

The Ambassador rejects the central argument of Assange and his supporters, that the US will seek to exploit Sweden’s attempts to extradite the WikiLeaks founder in order to extradite him onward to the United States. On Assange’s attempts to avoid extradition to Sweden, he said: “None of that has anything to do with the US and the US doesn’t have any interest at all in the extradition.

“The argument that’s been made that somehow the US is in cahoots with Sweden, that we want him to be extradited to Sweden so it will be easier for us to extradite from there, is just silly. If we want, if there was a basis and desire to extradite him now even, [we could] extradite him more easily from the UK than Sweden, there’s a more robust extradition agreement with the UK than there is with Sweden. I think it’s insulting to Sweden. Sweden is not a puppet state of the US.”

Bleich declined to comment on Vice-President Biden’s comparison of Assange to a “high-tech terrorist”, saying “I’ll just use my own words in what I think”. But in his view, WikiLeaks “is an irresponsible and dangerous approach to providing information”.

Bleich had a successful legal career, with a strong focus on international law, and was an adviser to President Obama before his appointment as Ambassador to Australia. “I was a lawyer who represented media, I worked with journalists all the time, I have tremendous respect for journalists, and for journalists I think it’s critical that they check government and they keep a close eye on government, and I used to do FOI requests all the time — not only FOI requests, I challenged gag orders on behalf of media. So … I get it.”

But Bleich argues WikiLeaks does not act like a traditional media outlet, which would be a key issue if Assange (or outlets such as The New York Times) are ever prosecuted for the release of the diplomatic cables. He says WikiLeaks “basically say if you steal it, we’ll publish it and it doesn’t matter if it’s newsworthy, we don’t purport to be in a position to know what to redact or what not to redact, they just threw it all up there, and it wasn’t clear what the point was”.

“If you ask people who had read — we don’t acknowledge the cables — but people who read this material and say ‘was this inconsistent with what the US was saying publicly?’ then … we said Gaddafi was a bad guy, this basically gives you information that’s consistent with that,” he told Crikey.

“At the same time, it put a lot of people in harm’s way. It compromised national security interests, individuals who were providing information to help us understand what’s going on had to be moved, had to leave, put in very dangerous situations.”

Bleich declined to give details on specific cases. But in his view, WikiLeaks is likely to cause damage to diplomacy through “information degradation”.

“As a result of things like WikiLeaks, if people feel anxious that they can’t have a fair conversation, what am I going to do? I’ll get worse information, so I want to understand what’s going on in the region. When I get that information I’m not going to share it as broadly as I should because I’m afraid it could leak, so I keep to too tight a grip. And I’m probably encouraged to do it by phone or in person as opposed to writing it down, so it doesn’t come back to bite anyone, which means the information degrades rapidly. And if you make a mistake you can’t go back two years later to figure out ‘where did we start making a mistake’ because there’s not enough of a paper trail,” he said.

Bleich believes governments are less trusted than ever, because of events like the Iraq War and the global financial crisis. “People feel as though the government is doing things that they didn’t quite understand and things went wrong, they want to know more about what the government is doing,” he said.

“There’s less trust in government. The global financial crisis created a lot of trauma around the world and people wonder ‘where were my leaders, what were they doing, what were they thinking, I want to know more, I don’t trust them as much’. I know the Iraq War was unpopular in many countries and very controversial in the US. The President himself said ‘I don’t think we should have gone in there’. So we know that caused people to say ‘I want to know more about what the government is doing’, and I think that creates an impetus for trying to get more authenticity and access to government decision-making.”

But, Bleich says, “when you sit down with people and actually talk about how it gets done, they say ‘yeah I get it, you wouldn’t want to have that conversation with everyone watching every single thing you say’. No other institution in the world operates that way.”

*More with Ambassador Bleich, including defence spending, copyright and the impact of the internet, tomorrow

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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135 thoughts on “US Ambassador: we have no interest in Assange

  1. Steve Gardner

    We are better informed than Ambassador Bleich thinks. We know from various other sources that a grand jury has been empanelled and is preparing an indictment of Assange under the Espionage Act 1917. See this http://pastebin.com/q0hTkwFh for example. We know that Australian Ambassador to the US Kim Beazley has requested that the US State Department keep him updated on the progress of its investigation of Assange. And there’s other evidence besides.

  2. Ashar

    Oh I get it – this is a game of “spot how many outrageous lies a government officer can get away with while still holding a straight face” right?

    So lets see:
    “the release by WikiLeaks of US diplomatic cables…placed people in harm’s way” This line has been rolled out by all US government officials and their cronies, and has consistently failed to show who has been actually harmed?

    “But it’s not that they pick someone, then figure out ‘oh now let’s see if we can find a crime’”
    Hmmm see Daniel Ellsberg (“Pentagon Papers” [1971] on the hidden and morally bankrupt US decision-making around the Vietnam War). Lets see what they did to him – charged with Espionage Act of 1917; house broken into by government agents (without warrant), illegally wire-tapped, illegal use of FBI powers in interviews, government officials committed conspiracy, and multiple attempts to discredit him through manipulating data about his mental state, as well as a plan to “totally incapacitate: him. That is just ONE of the more famous cases, but there is a plethora of examples of other whistlebowers etc who dare to challenge the supremacy of the US government’s (including all their agencies) moral authority to do whatever the hell it wants.

    “[Wikileaks] is an irresponsible and dangerous approach to providing information”
    Irrespective of the evidence to the contrary.

    “…in [Ambassador Bleich’s] view, WikiLeaks is likely to cause damage to diplomacy through “information degradation”
    Would that be confirming, in writing, to foreign authorities the poor views US authorities have of them? I am sure they were shocked, except their responses tend to say otherwise.

    “When I get that information I’m not going to share it as broadly as I should because I’m afraid it could leak, so I keep to too tight a grip. ”
    Really, that’s the response of a representative of over 300 million people to his obligations to keep his people informed? This though I understand is something of a new and radical thought in modern democracies – that The People have a right to know what is being done in their names, and with their resources.

    “I know the Iraq War was unpopular in many countries and very controversial in the US.”
    Maybe, because it was illegal? That whole paragraph was truly outrageous.

    But good on you for the pearl in the last couple of lines
    “when you sit down with people and actually talk about how it gets done, they say ‘yeah I get it, you wouldn’t want to have that conversation with everyone watching every single thing you say’. ”
    Really, which people? And since the US Ambassador is also talking about US governments collusion in the largest ponzy scam in history (Also known as the Global Financial Crisis – another dark humoured joke, right?), then I’d like to know which US citizens actually said anything remotely like that, because last I checked, the level of civil disobedience around illegal wars and government ponzy collusion was rating up pretty damn high, and the participants are not what you would normally think of as stereotypical protestors – probably because if your government backed the corporations who stole your house off you, you’d want to know what the hell was going behind closed doors to.

  3. Warren Joffe

    Indeed well done even to get the Ambassador to say the predictable clearly. One can’t make too much of
    “The US never talks about whether we’re conducting investigations of anyone, period,” the Ambassador said.

    even if it is inconsistent with reported remarks about the US having no interest in Assange. He seems to have come clean enough not to deserve “weaselling” as a description.

    Please prepare, Bernard, to see my persistent prejudices repeated tomorrow when you write up Copyright concerns dealt with by the Ambassador. I have heard a DC lawyer, meant to be speaking on something else, take the opportunity to show just how aggressively US interests are pursued in a number of ways to do with copyright, especially if one includeds as a US interest the aggregation of copyrights by the likes of the Disney Corporation.

    Let it not be left unsaid whenever it can be said, that Copyright law generally is scandalous when you compare it with even the 20 year patent max for life saving drugs etc. That someone with no relevant qualifications or knowledge like Mark Vaile, also not helped by nominally better qualified Cabinet colleagues and totally non-commercial bureaucrats, should have given away so much in the so-called Free Trade treaty negotiations is something not to forget because opportunity should be found to redress the errors. At least it didn’t hand Disney etc. life plus 90 years copyrights, merely and extension from 50 t0 75. It should have been reduced to life or 25 years whichever is the greater! Or does one want to make sure that the likes of Agatha Christie’s great-grandchildren can go on collecting royalties for 100 years? Worse in Australia where the distant heirs of the recently enriched painters who have long since sold their paintings will be able to collect royalties for generations without death duties!!!

    Yes, Bernard, I want you onside, even if your clear thinking doesn’t quite extend to seeing what a problem there is with the IPCC’s seven different models and the summaries that crxxks like Pachauri give to busy blinkered politicians.

  4. Radguy

    The UK will attempt to save face, after all, they use independent judicial officers to authorise warrants. The Swedes have no face to save, their legal system is being seen for the disgrace that it is.

    Anyway, as you were, continue to divert attention from the precedent set by allowing the word “prosecution” to be used to detain and question suspects without charges necessarily being laid.

    I recommend people look up this word in the Oxford dictionary as it clearly states the legal definition, despite the Swedish and UK courts ruling to allow the application of a very different definition. The etymology also suggests the legal definition “to bring before a court of law” has been in use since circa 1590. If you want to see where in the High Court transcript that this abomination of justice is applied, look for the words “cosmopolitan eyes”. Prosecution in my understanding is an IRREVOKABLE process that leads to charges. Ny has been granted an alternative definition which allows her to cease prosecution after questioning. This is a disturbing precedent which can be applied to other cases to allow extradition and detention for questioning by questionable justice systems. It allows for brutal coercion of innocent people who could easily answer questions remotely.

    Go on Jimmy, I dare you to comment on the credibility of the allegations including ALL relevant detail. Prove that you are no coward. I will prejudge any comment that declares these details irrelevant as evasive and cowardly.

  5. Warren Joffe

    @ Pedantic, Balwyn and all the others who think that Assange ought to go and clear his reputation (or some other equal unlikely and fatuous objective) in Sweden and show he is not cowardly or a sexual predator or whatever please, please, you simple-minded naive luvlies, come and make up a poker table with me and bring lots of money so it will be worth my while associating with such simple folk. So Assange is a lefty/anarchist/fascist egotist, control freak and misuser of his attractiveness to women… So what? In the meantime niceminded luvlies, don’t let any of your nearest and dearest fall for the idea that it can ever, unless you have many millions for your defence in the courts and the media, be a good idea to be tried in the US – or be subjected to court process in pretty well any other country unless you know the law, the customs, the culture, the language and the lawyers – and can afford and get bail and can recoup your expenditure more than fully with a book on your ordeal.

    It has been pointed out already that the US is probably reasonably happy with the current situation. It might also be added, peripherally to whatever is the main point in some relevant person’s mind, that Assange took a good deal of trouble, successfully it seems, to ensure that lives weren’t endangered by Wikileaks disclosures (it was the Guardian’s carelessness which effectually let out one of the unredacted sets of records ); also that at the least Wikileaks has done everyone a favour who might otherwise have trusted the US to keep secrets efficiently and reliably.

  6. Komodo

    One reason Sweden might be preferable to the UK as a departure point is this:

    Start from the assumption that in 2010, the US had decided that it wanted Assange. First move, get him into custody in a friendly country, before he buggered off to somewhere the US could only touch him with a drone. The UK wouldn’t play ball as no crimes had been committed by Assange there – rendering him wasn’t a good political option given his public support and interest.

    But Assange was going to address some fellow subversives in Sweden. This was monitored, and a honey trap sprung. Nothing likely to put him away inconveniently long – the case was so weak that the initial prosecutor, not in on the deal, dropped it forthwith. But, demonstrably under political pressure, it was resurrected. The day after Assange left with the second prosecutor’s blessing, A European Arrest Warrant was issued. Previous cases indicate US policy in similar circumstances; it waits until the initial case is disposed of before seeking extradition, as the ‘criminal’ leaves the courtroom, or a short jail sentence. (The case is shot through with holes. My deceased grandmother could get Assange off. But the charade is being played to the end as if it were watertight.)

    So, the reason, in this view, would be simple opportunism. The question of whether Sweden or the UK would be more likely to extradite is irrelevant – either would be happy to do so with the minimum of difficulty. The priority was to get Assange’s movements controlled and that eftsoons or right speedily – the equipment was in place in Sweden, and Assange obligingly went there.

    And there’s a little bonus for the US in that Assange has now been thoroughly smeared as a rapist by the obliging media, further eroding his fan base abd reducing his political credibility.

    It’s a theory.

  7. Karen

    Thanks to all correspondents for those responses to my questions. Very interesting, indeed!

    In a common law country there would be NO way witnesses would be interviewed together, let alone alleged viciims and accused persons. All sorts of issues arise including: tainted evidence (when witnesses are brought together to check their evidence and iron out any inconsistencies); retractions because an alleged victim may become intimidated when sitting in the presence of an accused person who may be giving them the proverbial death stare.

    In Australia, for example, not only is this not done, but when such cases are tried, a victim can give evidence behind a screen , so they don’t have to face the accused in court for precisely this reason. Alternatively, victims, especially child victims, give evidence in a sealed off room with the use of CCTV – again for this reason.

    The Swedish criminal justice system sounds appalling. Unsophisticated, oppressive and opaque, to all parties. Open to abuse, as well. No wonder Assange doesn’t want to go there. And unsurprising that the Americans would be more than happy for Assange to go there…

    Alfred – interesting insights on record management. The Americans are probably ripping doors of hinges investigating their security leaks in order to patch things up. Their system sounds lax (especially chucking material with different security classifications together) and, for that reason, open to attack in any defence of Manning, Assange, whoever…

  8. Jimmy

    Fractious – Everyone is more than happy to look at all Assange’s supposed heroic actions but no one wants to hear that he possibly endangered innocent lives with his publications or that he could possibly have assaulted 2 young women!

    On this and other threads it has been alleged that the US wants to get Assange to Sweden so they can extradite him but no one acknowledges that the US could extradite him from the UK if they wanted.

    It is also alleged that they want to get him to Sweden to “rendition” him, again ignoring the fact that if they wanted to “rendition” him they could do that from anywhere in the world, even Ecuador.

    It is alleged that the US will not follow legal proceedings in order to get at Assange but apparently they are so determined to follow legal proceedings that they have to get him to Sweden to make it legal for them to “borrow” him from them.

    It is also alleged by some now that the US don’t even want him extradited that they are happy for him to be sentenced and imprisoned in Sweden despite Sweden not even charging him as yet.

    It has also been alleged that the US will hold him indefinitely without charge (becuase what could they charge him with) despite a recent court ruling making this impossible.

    In short people have decided the US are going to get Assange, they don’t know what they could charge him with, how the could orchestrate it or why they are going about it the way they are but none of that matters, because they know.

  9. Warren Joffe

    What about pulling out the wool and switching on the grey matter Jimmy.

    Your guff about (an implausible or impossible) conspiracy of four countries’ executives, judiciaries and legislatures ( or most of them, I can’t stand checking back on your woolly guff) doesn’t do justice to those who address serious issues such as whether Assange (I repeat my lack of sympathy for the personality we have had described to us by admittedly unreliable and interested parties) should on all the solid evidence and all the reasonable estimates of probabilities submit himself to a process which could lead to his being banged up for many years in the US, possibly in the inhumane conditions the US has imposed on one of their own much younger, more vulnerable citizens, Bradley Manning.

    Of course the US (not every citizen or even every official person in case you need it spelled out) detests Assange and has been investigating him and Wikileaks for years as well as taking active measures against them (like coercing, though not much coercion needed I suspect, Visa etc into denying service) and if you don’t believe a grand jury has been considering potential criminal charges against Assange while a good deal of the reason for delay in bringing Bradley Manning to trial is an attempt to coerce him into testifying effectively against others, especially Assange, then please add yourself to the list of those I want at my poker table startug with big piles of chips in front of them. Are you aware, btw, of one of the fundamental differences between our and the US justice system? I mean the First Amendment (I think it is the First which guarantees freedom of speech/the press) and its awful consequences for justice to the individual. Why are there so many plea deals? Because a prosecutor can load up the indictment with crimes carrying horrendous penalties and then rely on the media to generate an atmosphere of hostile intimidation against the accused. And as Karen (obviously a lawyer) has pointed out, the Swedish practices (pre-charge!) are unsophisticated and barbarous by our standards – the fact that a legacy of PC leftism in Scandinavia ensures only slaps on the wrist for punishment (21 years for Brevik!) doesn’t mean more than their fashions may cycle to a different beat.

  10. Warren Joffe

    I should take the advice not to encourage Jimmy. He reminds me of some people whom I’ve listened to being cross-examined who manage to make their slippery performances last hours through seeming to be just dumb enough not to have fully understood the point, making non-responsive replies, replying so as to cover not quite all the question etc. But let me just point to something which suggests he hasn’t even done his homework.

    Apart from the obvious fact that public opionion, including that of tens of thousands of resident Australians, would make extradition difficult in the UK, the US would have had to get in before the Swedish use of the European Arrest Warrant which was, now, a long time ago [have you bothered to inform or remind yourself about that Jimmy?].

    As for the idea that he could be easily “rendered” from Ecuador, that’s just dopey. Even assuming you know what you are talking about and can say that CIA contractors could get past Ecuadorian security measures reliably, that would at one blow, so discredit the US’s anti-Wikileaks and anti-Assange moral case (such as it is) that even the most gung-ho advisers to presidents might pause, and Obama would understand that the US in 2012 doesn’t want to be telling its friends that it will grab their citizens when and where it wants to. But its a silly idea anyway. In the fog of uncertainty surrounding Assange and his pursuers there is only one sensible premise for judging Assange’s action in seeking Ecuadorian asylum and that is what is a credible range of probabilities that he could put on the various possible courses and outcomes, added to his moral or other personal starting point. I find it difficult to imagine that even you, when your mind is directed to it, could damn him for regarding a real possibility of being gaoled for many years in the US as a pretty fundamental starting point.

  11. Jimmy

    Fractious – So the public opinion would be so strong it would influence the politicians to influence the judicial system if the US wanted the extradite him from the UK but it wasn’t strong enough to stop him being extradited to Sweden when all his supporters believed it was just a stepping stone to getting to the US?

    Geomac – I am no expert on the Swedish legal system but does the prosecutors “insistence” just happen automatically, no judicial process?

    Warren Joffe – “As for the idea that he could be easily “rendered” from Ecuador, that’s just dopey. Even assuming you know what you are talking about and can say that CIA contractors could get past Ecuadorian security measures reliably, that would at one blow, so discredit the US’s anti-Wikileaks and anti-Assange moral case (such as it is) that even the most gung-ho advisers to presidents might pause, and Obama would understand that the US in 2012 doesn’t want to be telling its friends that it will grab their citizens when and where it wants to” I think the whole idea he could be “rendered” is dopey, however numerous people have said that the US could render him from Sweden which is dopey for all the reason you point out, but if they are willing to do it in one country why not from the UK or Ecuador?

    And if I could just clarify what is supposed to be happening here, Assange had a night out with some girls, they later alleged assault the charges were investigated and Assange was told he could go, the US then stepped in and corrupted the Swedish legal process not to have him extradited to the US but to have him locked up in Sweden, despite the fact these allegations are apparently so flimsy anyone can see he is innocent, even from the other side of the world.

    So why did the girls make the allegations in the first place and what is in it for them to continue with them?

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