WikiLeaks’s release of over 1000 US diplomatic cables relating to Australia yesterday — including a number previously released by Fairfax — will take a while to make proper sense of (the WikiLeaks site itself has come under repeated attack in the last 24 hours, meaning it has been down for much of the time, requiring the use of mirror sites). Much of the coverage so far has focused on political personalities, with Bill Shorten’s talk with US Consul-General Michael Thurston getting most attention, particularly his repeated invocation of Martin Luther King.

Two significant cables relate to the conduct of then-Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, and DFAT officials, in 2005. In February that year, DFAT officials, and in particular Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office (ASNO) Director General John Carlson, met with the Bush Administration’s Non-Proliferation Ambassaador to discuss ways to prevent Mohamed ElBaradei’s re-election at the International Atomic Energy Agency, complaining about ElBaradei’s management style and handling of Iran.

Carlson, whose identity the cable stated should be protected, also offered “his informal and uncleared thoughts” on ElBaradei, complaining that no one would stand against him unless he withdrew, that Foreign Minister Downer wouldn’t be interested in the job, and that issues from ElBaradei’s tenure should be “dredged up” to mount a campaign against him. As was later revealed, by that stage, the Bush Administration had been spying on ElBaradei over an extended period to identify material they could use to force him out, but by June that year the US had abandoned its opposition to his re-election.

And in a remarkable insight into Downer’s facile approach to issues of the utmost seriousness, a week later the Foreign Minister himself met with US General Leon LaPorte, Commander of the UN Command in Korea, and appears to have joked about a pre-emptive attack on North Korea. After a discussion about the capacity of North Korea’s artillery to threaten Seoul, the following is recorded: “‘not that any of us believe in pre-emption,’ Downer chuckled, but what could the UN forces do if they thought it was necessary?”

LaPorte’s response was “that all of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) operational plans were premised on reacting to a North Korean attack.” Downer went on to suggest about North Korea “let the whole place go to s–t, that’s the best thing that could happen.”

Speaking off the top of his head, he added that aid should not be given that would prop up the infrastructure. If US officials wanted to hear the “bleeding hearts” view of “peace and love” with respect to North Korea, Downer joked, they only had to visit his colleagues in New Zealand.

This was only a few months after Downer himself had visited Pyongyang and met his North Korean counterpart.

An array of other cables offer insights into the thinking among both local and US figures:

  • ANU academic Professor John Wanna nailed Kevin Rudd’s management style early on when he predicted to diplomats shortly after Rudd had become Prime Minister, that Rudd “will retain his centralist, workaholic tendencies, operating through a few chosen advisors.”
  • At the launch of WorkChoices, Howard government ministers are reported as being privately worried that the benefits of WorkChoices wouldn’t become obvious to voters before the 2007 election.
  • US diplomats were convinced that even moderate Australian Muslims were inclined to engage in terrorism, in the aftermath of the London bombings, insisting to the State Department “while Muslim moderates have publicly opposed extremist statements, privately, their views are more complicated and may even share aspects of the anti-Western ideology that breeds terrorism.”
  • In a 2006 meeting with Federal Liberal Director Brian Loughnane, US diplomats were told John Howard was well-placed to win the 2007 election if the Australian economy stayed strong. In a significant revelation of Loughnane’s partisan mindset, he “noted that the close ties between President Bush and Howard where reflected in the similarly strong ties between the Australian Liberal and US Republican parties”.
  • Then-opposition leader Kim Beazley told US diplomats on returning to the Labor leadership: “David Hicks was a ratbag who had almost certainly been up to nefarious things, and should probably spend a long time in jail, Beazley said. Still, he predicted most Australians would never accept his conviction by a military commission, even if the Administration manages to structure one acceptable to the Supreme Court. Unless he can be tried by a civil court or by a fully constituted court marshal, it would be better, Beazley argued, to let him go.”
  • The then-Head of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, Major General Maurie McNarn, and his deputy Michael Shoebridge met with diplomats in 2008 and noted in relation to cybersecurity, “that the Australian intelligence community was “hard pressed” to understand the full extent of the threat, let alone serve in a position to lead the coordination of any interagency mitigation efforts. McNarn said the Defense Signals Directorate (DSD) had “the lead” for Australia in tackling the issue but was more focused on traditional intelligence collection/counterintelligence themes, and that Australian intelligence would need to stay engaged with its US counterparts to share lessons learned in the cyber arena.”
  • The US State Department hoped that successful litigation against iiNet by major Hollywood studios over filesharing would “would have established an international precedent that could have forced ISPs to tightly police the activities of their customers” (and, incidentally, they thought the NBN would encourage filesharing).
  • In November 2009, diplomats predicted the strong Australian dollar would “support a restructuring of the Australian economy, resulting in a substantially smaller traditional manufacturing sector and an expanded resources and energy sector. This may put political pressure on Prime Minister Rudd, who pledged the day he became ALP leader: “I don’t want to be Prime Minister of a country that doesn’t make things anymore.”
  • US businesses operating in Australia expressed mixed views about the CPRS, with concerns focusing on uncertainty.

Peter Fray

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