Prime Minister Julia Gillard was generally taking “between four and six days” to read “urgent material” from senior national security advisers during the height of Australian intelligence community consternation about the WikiLeaks’ release of over 250,000 highly sensitive US diplomatic cables.
The declassified briefings from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, retrieved by the Fairfax papers using Freedom of Information laws, shed more light on the period between November 24 and December 10 last year when the Australian government was unprepared for the disclosure of what it saw as “highly sensitive and politically embarrassing matters”.
The documents show that, while the government reacted quickly to the leak, lack of co-operation from the US State Department and Gillard’s disengagement with the crisis caused the government into a series of missteps and blunders, culminating in the PM’s prejudicial comments outside parliament in early December that WikiLeaks was engaged in an “illegal act”.
On November 24, the US State Department went public to Congress with its belief that it was expecting at any moment “a damaging release of sensitive diplomatic documents”. Within days, WikiLeaks published identifying annotated data for each of the 250,000 cables.
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Crikey reported at the time the Australian government was likely to therefore be in possession of the content of the leaks, given it was a simple case of the US checking the annotated data against their own files and passing that information along to Canberra.
We know now that while the Americans did exactly this check, they unexpectedly refused to pass on copies of the cables to the Australian government, despite the fact the cables were already “in the wild” and despite repeated entreaties from a top-level Australian inter-departmental taskforce that was desperate for “first-hand access to the cables to conduct our own analysis”.
According to documents obtained by Fairfax, on the day after the US government alerted Australian officials of the leaks, and the same day that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rang Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd to pre-emptively apologise, the Australian government formed a high-level taskforce, chaired by Deputy National Security Adviser Margot McCarthy, which met that same day.
However, the taskforce immediately hit a brick wall, unable to respond effectively to the cables without knowing the contents. Requests to the US for the required information were “spectacularly unsuccessful”, and took “a frustrating amount of time”. It forced Defence Minister Robert McClelland, on November 29 to fudge the issue during his press conference. When asked directly “are you getting access to documents that are not on the website from anyone else?”, rather than admitting the Americans had not shared the sensitive-but-already-leaked-data with their supposed close ally, he replied with: “Well, again — we have been forewarned … So we have been given access to certain documentation.” You can almost hear ASIO facepalming as he says it.
All up, the WikiLeaks cablegate release highlights how little influence Australia has over its main ally. The US trusted 2.5 million US citizens with the cable data, but not a single Australian, even after the data was in the hands of major media organisations around the world.
Perhaps McClelland should have asked Julian Assange for a copy — after all, he is an Australian citizen.