The government has again used FOI exemptions to block scrutiny of its handling of the Julian Assange case, including redacting material already publicly available.
This week the Attorney-General’s Department released its response to Greens Senator Scott Ludlam’s FOI request for material relating to the Assange case. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade released its heavily redacted response (large file) at the end of June.
AGD appears to have a slightly different take on exemptions and redactions than their colleagues in DFAT (bearing in mind FOI decisions are made at bureaucratic level, not by ministers). A letter from then-foreign minister Kevin Rudd to then-attorney-general Robert McClelland on November 15 heavily redacted by DFAT has been provided by AGD with some of the missing — entirely innocuous — content left in, as has McClelland’s reply a week later.
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The exact nature of Rudd’s questions to McClelland about Assange’s extradition have been redacted in both letters on the grounds that it might cause damage to the international relations of the Commonwealth, but were of sufficient weight that there was, at least briefly, consideration given to holding an interdepartmental meeting involving the two departments and PM&C in order to address them.
However, AGD left in an anodyne paragraph omitted in the DFAT version in which McClelland expresses support for Assange receiving full consular assistance including attendance at his court hearings. AGD also left in a paragraph relating to DFAT’s dealings with UK and Swedish authorities and its urging that Assange’s case proceed in accordance with due process. Given even AGD didn’t think this would have posed any threat to Australia, it is clear that DFAT’s interpretation of the “damage to the international relations” legislative clause is extremely broad.
The convenient breadth of that interpretation is again demonstrated in the October response of a DFAT official, on behalf of Rudd, to Gareth Peirce, Assange’s London lawyer, who wrote to Rudd on September 15 via a letter delivered by Malcolm Turnbull. Apart from getting Peirce’s gender wrong (an error rectified in a subsequent DFAT letter to Peirce), the letter contained some minor details of discussions between Australian and Swedish officials, nearly all of which were redacted by DFAT in the FOI version.
AGD’s version, again, gives us a slightly clearer idea, and reveals DFAT redacted the highly damaging information that it had raised with the Swedes the expectation that Assange’s case would proceed in accordance with due process.
Absurdly, the letter itself has been publicly available in unredacted form for months via the Justice4Assange site. That shows AGD and DFAT concluded that it would be breaching the confidence of another government to reveal that Sweden had advised that it had a policy not to extradite for offences where the death penalty was involved and that Sweden would require the approval of the UK before it extradited Assange to the United States.
DFAT even omitted a paragraph advising that Assange’s passport had not been cancelled, on the grounds that it was personal information.
The documents also show that after McClelland’s reply to his November letter, Rudd was sufficiently interested in the issue of “temporary surrender” to ask for a briefing note . Typically for Rudd, the request was issued late on a Friday afternoon for a briefing paper by Monday, with AGD only asked for input at 4.45 on Friday. “Thanks for the email,” an AGD officer replies to DFAT. “We’ll work with you on Monday in relation to this.”
The DFAT officer told AGD that DFAT had already provided several “hasty emails” to Rudd’s office on the issue “in response to an article on this issue on the swedenversusassange website” (which is now the justice4assange site), indicating Rudd and his office team were proactively monitoring the issue and demanding input from DFAT about it. As Crikey reported earlier this week, the government’s formal view is that there is no distinction between Assange’s rights under “temporary surrender” in the event the US seeks his extradition, and his rights under ordinary extradition processes.
Even if the documents themselves continue to obscure the government’s internal deliberations about Assange, they do reveal just how absurdly broad the government’s interpretation of statutory FOI exemptions can be.