The Australian government knows exactly what is in the WikiLeaks documents.
Although WikiLeaks has so far only published 272 of the 250,000 documents in its possession, and none of the 1400 sent from the US Embassy or consulates in Australia, the organisation has published annotated information on all 250,000 cables, including date and source.
This means the Americans have been able to check their own records for the content of the cables and pass that information along to Canberra.
Indeed, Attorney-General Robert McClelland admitted as much during his press conference yesterday when he said “we have been given access to certain documentation”.
It was the same press conference that saw the faintly unedifying spectacle of the Australian Attorney-General making vague threats against an Australian citizen. McClelland refused to state which, if any, laws WikiLeaks and its Australian spokesperson, Julian Assange, have broken, stating “there are potentially a number of criminal laws that could have been breached by the release of this information. The Australian Federal Police are looking at that.”
When pressed on whether Assange was in danger of being arrested, he said they have “received no such request” from the US and were acting off their own initiative.
For the past few days, a “whole-of-government taskforce”, larger than the Department of Defence taskforce that investigated the July Afghan War leaks, has been going through the material seeking ways to “reduce the impact”.
The level of engagement by the Australian government, and the staggering revelations of documents overseas (the latest being the stunning revelation that the US has been deploying nuclear weapons to the Netherlands), has ratcheted up expectations that the cables about Australia could contain damaging revelations.
If the cables are anything like those released under various archive rules (such as the 20-year rule), we will probably be treated to a series of documents that surprise people with their lack of nuance or double dealing. The lesson from the archives is normally that governments are simply too complex to have a large gap between actions and private concerns.
Of the 251,287 cables, at least 1031 refer to Australia, with 933 dispatches from Canberra, 75 from Melbourne, 12 from Sydney and 11 from Perth.
The Canberra cables go back to 2005, with the first sent on February 11, 2005. A majority of the cables fall between 2007-2009. The last appears in February 26, 2010. This covers the change of government in Australia in 2007, the AWB oil-for-wheat-scandal, increases in troops in Afghanistan in 2007 and the troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2009.
If we take one period in particular, late February 2010, there are a dozen cables between the 19th and the 26th, including four on the 21st. A search of the news archives from those dates shows Australia commenting about Iran’s nuclear program, tough talking Japan over whaling and the Vatican’s Mary MacKillop announcement.
However, the main diplomatic story of that week in early 2010 was Australia’s diplomatic crisis with Israel over the its use of fake Australian passports in an assassination in Dubai.
The Australian response was widely debated for its nuance and international meaning at the time, including how it would affect our chances of gaining the votes of the Middle Eastern bloc for a seat on the United Nations security council. If those cables relate to that crisis, as surely we must suspect they do, we may be seeing new information shed on the most sensitive maneuvering of our government.
And it’s not just a case of historical interest, an unfavourable leak in the next few days about Australia’s international dealings could torpedo Australia’s soccer World Cup bid, also dependent on at least one vote from the Middle East, which occurs early next month.
No wonder the Australian government is huffing and puffing.