What Has Really Been Disclosed?


The latest document release by Wikileaks has attracted predictable condemnation from those who have a vested interest in maintaining a veil of secrecy over their activities. To a large extent the Australian media have missed the point of the document disclosures. 

Julia Gillard condemned Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange as a "criminal" and promised co-operation with US authorities in their desire to shut down Assange and his website. When questioned however she was unable to name exactly which Australian law he had broken.

Predictably the mainstream Australian media chose to emphasise the trivial at the expense of the many substantive issues raised by the Wikileaks disclosures. Now that Australia has been brought into the furore with revelations about Kevin Rudd during his prime ministership that may change. But don’t count on it. Before the news that American diplomats were as impressed with Rudd’s micromanagement style as his colleagues, media outlets focused on Rudd’s comments about China. A potentially more important aspect of the cables however was the promise to the Americans to use Australian special forces in expanding the Afghanistan war into neighbouring Pakistan.

Despite a nine year involvement in Afghanistan successive governments refused to allow a debate in either house of parliament until the most recent sitting. It is a revealing illustration of the contempt shown by politicians for public accountability when they appear willing to expand a war without debate on the multi-layered levels of deception and deceit that characterise Australia’s involvement in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In the meantime we have been titillated by the views of sundry US diplomats about Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi’s sexual antics, French President Sarkozy’s sensitivity to criticism, German Chancellor Angela Merkels’s alleged lack of imagination, and the wholly unsurprising revelation that sundry Middle East despots fear a nuclear armed or even dominant Iran. Entirely missing from the media coverage of the latter point for example, is information on public opinion in the Arab world about a nuclear Iran and about the threat to peace in their region posed by the United States and Israel and their obstruction of a just resolution to the ongoing Palestinian tragedy.

A survey of Arab opinion by the Brookings Institution disclosed that 88 per cent of ordinary Arabs saw Israel as their greatest threat and 77 per cent nominated the United States as a major threat. Seventy-five percent opposed the sanctions on Iran and 57 per cent saw it as a positive that Iran got nuclear weapons.

Arising from the latest Wikileaks documents however are three other topics, among many other, that are worthy of comment and reflection but which are barely present in mainstream coverage. They should have been scrutinized more closely and their implications discussed more fully. Two of those three are disturbingly similar.

In 2003 a German citizen by the name of Khalid El-Masri was kidnapped while on holiday in Macedonia. He was taken to Morocco by CIA agents where he was tortured on behalf of the US government. He was then flown via Baghdad to Afghanistan on a so-called "rendition flight" that had originated in Spain. There, El-Masri was held incommunicado, tortured, subjected to experimental drugs, and subjected to prolonged stress amounting to inhuman treatment.

The Americans eventually realised that he was who he had always said he was, an innocent victim of mistaken identity. They were reluctant to release him, despite instructions to do so from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice because "he knew too much". At Rice’s apparent insistence he was eventually released, but instead of being returned to Germany was dumped on a roadside in Albania.

Upon his return to Germany El-Masri complained to the German authorities who instituted criminal proceedings against, among others, the CIA officers responsible for his kidnapping, torture and unlawful imprisonment. According to the Wikileaks cables John Koenig of the US embassy in Berlin pressed the German government to block the investigations as the outcome could have "a negative impact on bilateral arrangements". The German government, to its great discredit, acceded to the request.

The Spanish government, much to the chagrin of the Americans, has shown greater resilience. They took up the issue of El-Masri’s treatment because the CIA agents responsible for the kidnapping, rendition and torture had entered Spain on false United Kingdom passports.

The Spanish also had another inquiry ongoing at the time into the death of a Spanish cameraman Jose Cuoso. Cuoso had been in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad when it was shelled by an American tank, notwithstanding the American’s knowledge that the hotel was occupied principally by members of the international press. Cuoso died, along with several other civilians, as a result of the shelling.

The Wikileaks cables record an extraordinary, large scale and co-ordinated effort by the US State Department, senior politicians, and the US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to obstruct the criminal investigation. The Spanish authorities were warned by the Americans that the investigations would "be misunderstood" and would harm bilateral relations. US diplomats sought out and communicated directly with Spanish judges and prosecutors in an attempt to steer the investigation into "friendlier hands."

The third illustration relates to the Chilcott inquiry in the United Kingdom set up by the Brown Labor government "to identify lessons that can be learned from the Iraq conflict." At the same time that the British government was promising transparency in the inquiry Jon Day, the Ministry of Defence’s Director-General for Security was telling US Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher that the UK had "put measures in place to protect your interests during the UK inquiry into the causes of the Iraq war."

The cable, dated 22 September 2009 did not disclose what those measures were, but it hardly matters.

All three cases illustrate a pattern of unlawful conduct by Australia’s closest allies.

In the case of the United States it is an ally moreover with whom Gillard is willing to doing anything to co-operate, including presumably avoiding an inquiry into how Australia came to be involved in two illegal wars. Anything furthermore, except observing the rule of law and protecting an Australian citizen from persecution for doing what politicians fear most: exposing their misdeeds, lies and hypocrisy for the entire world to see.

The Nuremberg trials established the principle that political and military leaders would be held accountable for waging wars of aggression. Now however, we have a situation where invasions of other countries on manifestly false and manufactured premises in breach of international law, suspension of habeas corpus, unlawful renditions and detentions, torture and other breaches of law and international conventions are carried out without those responsible being held accountable.

Where attempts are made to investigate the abuses such as those suffered by El Masri the judicial authorities are subjected to unwarranted and unlawful pressures to look the other way. The unasked question in all this is: do we really want Australia to become that sort of society? Unless the answer is a resounding ‘no’ and steps are taken to hold lawbreakers accountable then Australian democracy is under very real threat.

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