Philip Dorling, The Age |
THE US military has designated Julian Assange and WikiLeaks as enemies of the United States – the same legal category as the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban insurgency.
Declassified US Air Force counter-intelligence documents, released under US freedom-of-information laws, reveal that military personnel who contact WikiLeaks or WikiLeaks supporters may be at risk of being charged with “communicating with the enemy”, a military crime that carries a maximum sentence of death.
The documents, some originally classified “Secret/NoForn” – not releasable to non-US nationals – record a probe by the air force’s Office of Special Investigations into a cyber systems analyst based in Britain who allegedly expressed support for WikiLeaks and attended pro-Assange demonstrations in London.
The counter-intelligence investigation focused on whether the analyst, who had a top-secret security clearance and access to the US military’s Secret Internet Protocol Router network, had disclosed classified or sensitive information to WikiLeaks supporters, described as an “anti-US and/or anti-military group”.
The suspected offence was “communicating with the enemy, 104-D”, an article in the US Uniform Code of Military Justice that prohibits military personnel from “communicating, corresponding or holding intercourse with the enemy”.
The analyst’s access to classified information was suspended. However, the investigators closed the case without laying charges. The analyst denied leaking information.
Mr Assange remains holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London. He was granted diplomatic asylum on the grounds that if extradited to Sweden to be questioned about sexual assault allegations, he would be at risk of extradition to the US to face espionage or conspiracy charges arising from the leaking of hundreds of thousands of secret US military and diplomatic reports.
US Vice-President Joe Biden labelled Mr Assange a “high-tech terrorist” in December 2010 and US congressional leaders have called for him to be charged with espionage.
Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee – both once involved in presidential campaigns – have both urged that Mr Assange be “hunted down”.
Mr Assange’s US attorney, Michael Ratner, said the designation of WikiLeaks as an “enemy” had serious implications for the WikiLeaks publisher if he were to be extradited to the US, including possible military detention.
US Army private Bradley Manning faces a court martial charged with aiding the enemy – identified as al-Qaeda – by transmitting information that, published by WikiLeaks, became available to the enemy.
Mr Ratner said that under US law it would most likely have been considered criminal for the US Air Force analyst to communicate classified material to journalists and publishers, but those journalists and publishers would not have been considered the enemy or prosecuted.
“However, in the FOI documents there is no allegation of any actual communication for publication that would aid an enemy of the United States such as al-Qaeda, nor are there allegations that WikiLeaks published such information,” he said.
“Almost the entire set of documents is concerned with the analyst’s communications with people close to and supporters of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, with the worry that she would disclose classified documents to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
“It appears that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are the ‘enemy’. An enemy is dealt with under the laws of war, which could include killing, capturing, detaining without trial, etc.”
The Australian government has repeatedly denied knowledge of any US intention to charge Mr Assange or seek his extradition.
However, Australian diplomatic cables released to Fairfax Media under freedom-of-information laws over the past 18 months have confirmed the continuation of an “unprecedented” US Justice Department espionage investigation targeting Mr Assange and WikiLeaks.
The Australian diplomatic reports canvassed the possibility that the US may eventually seek Mr Assange’s extradition on conspiracy or information-theft-related offences to avoid extradition problems arising from the nature of espionage as a political offence and the free-speech protections in the US constitution.
Mr Assange is scheduled this morning to speak by video link to a meeting on his asylum case on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The meeting will be attended by Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino.
In a separate FOI decision yesterday, the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the release of Australian diplomatic cables about WikiLeaks and Mr Assange had been the subject of extensive consultation with the US.