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

Peter Fray

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