His meeting with new American ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, will likely be the happiest event in the prime minister’s diary, flavoured with election and budgetary pressures. But Scott Morrison might attach a coda to their conversation. It should be about the continuation of the US bid to extradite Julian Assange from the United Kingdom to face a possible 175-year sentence in the US. This extradition was recently given new life by a decision of British judges that the US action has merit.
“We think this thing has gone on long enough,” Morrison might say. “Members of my own government including my deputy Barnaby Joyce are saying it’s wrong. We’ve got war crimes trials pending for Australian troops in Afghanistan who might have done the very things Assange exposed in Iraq. Washington can turn this guy into a martyr.”
It’s what one ally, confident of its contribution to the alliance, can say to the other, a small transaction under the architecture of what each sees as a mutually beneficial relationship. If we can’t take up the cause of an Australian passport holder, what scope for any independent action do we now allow ourselves? Is everything subsumed by alliance loyalties?
The bloodlust of an offended US security state might have been weakening. In July the US Justice Department said America would settle for Assange serving his sentence in an Australian prison. A concession, because spending the rest of his life in cruel isolation in a maximum security penitentiary on the plains of Oklahoma seemed part of this punitive project.
Assange has been enfeebled by two years in a harsh UK prison, to the point allegedly of suffering a stroke, forced to sustain strip searches and handcuffs as if the British were processing a Hannibal Lecter and not just a troublemaking advocate of the media freedom the first amendment appears to guarantee.
In all the shaking of evidentiary files the American prosecutors have failed to find any smoking gun. In 2013 a Pentagon counter intelligence chief was forced to concede there was no evidence of any lives being lost as a result of Assange’s spilling of secrets. Freedom of information revealed this was also the Australian army view.
The US prosecution is not about charges of sexual assault levelled at Assange – they were dropped by Sweden in November 2019 – or about the leaking of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 emails which have never figured in indictments.
The case against Assange is about one action: he published 2007 footage of US soldiers in an Apache helicopter aiming guns at unarmed Iraqi civilians including children. The only US defence for this casual slaughter is Robert Gates, former defence secretary, saying it was just part of “the fog of war”.
This is precisely the defence that Australian servicemen in Afghanistan might hope to make if any war crimes trials are brought against them following the Brereton report. In other words, Assange is to be put in prison for the rest of his life for exposing behaviour that Australia considers, when committed by its own troops, worthy of prosecution.
Former US president Obama pardoned the astonishingly brave Chelsea Manning who had been the source of the helicopter footage. And in June an Icelandic newspaper reported that a key witness in the United States’ case admitted in an interview with them to fabricating key accusations in the indictment against the WikiLeaks founder.
When the US stated it was no longer itching to install Assange in one of its prisons, our foreign minister Marise Payne was entitled to ring the secretary of state, remind him of all the things Australia does for the US and say Australian public opinion would prefer to have the extradition quietly dropped.
Since George W Bush the US has had three presidents; each opposed or regretted the war. Senator Ted Kennedy in a prescient speech at Johns Hopkins in September 2002 warned an invasion of Iraq would be a strategic error. He warned of the immense postwar commitment that would be required to create a stable Iraq. It was the strongest statement of opposition from the Democrats to the March 2003 invasion.
His niece would remember it and be receptive to a friendly suggestion to set aside proceedings against an Australian who exposed one small part of its horrors. And Australians might breathe a sigh that there is one tiny corner of our alliance partnership where we can behave like a sovereign nation.