Review – A Secret Australia Revealed by the Wikileaks Exposés

By Samaya Borom

The book A Secret Australia Revealed by the Wikileaks Exposés, edited by Felicity Ruby and Peter Cronau, was released at the time where Julian Assange, creator of Wikileaks, was awaiting his extradition trial to the United States for the publication of classified and sensitive information relating to the War on Terror.

Media coverage of the fact that Assange is facing 175 years in jail for 18 charges, including 17 under the US Espionage Act of 1917, is closely tied in with what both Ruby and Cronau argue is a “propaganda campaign to smear the name of Julian Assange…from the information he has made available to all, about how governments lie and betray their own citizens”. The book, they note, is in response to the impact that Wikileaks, and by default Assange, has had on Australia. These impacts range from a diverse lot of subject matter such as human rights, freedom of press, war crimes, governmental secrecy. These approaches are always underpinned by the idea of Wikileaks and Assange as publisher and journalist.

The book features contributions by well-known Australian writers, politicians, academics, and those in the legal profession. Most of the chapters are succinct, and for readers interested in an evidence-based approach to some of the statements made, accessible with endnote references to support key insights and arguments. 

The book’s  first chapter,‘Wikileaks and Human Rights’, is written by Jennifer Robinson, lawyer to Assange. Robinson writes about the fact that Australia only has an implied right to freedom of communication. She argues that the protection of whistle-blowers is paramount to ensuring a robust democracy – particularly where governments are active in incursions upon established human rights standards. The continual detention of Assange, noted for publishing material that linked the United States to War Crimes is a controversial figure, to some he is the champion of free speech, to others he is considered to be dangerous, even a “high tech terrorist”. The continual publication of confidential cables related to States and their internal affairs drew the wrath of such countries as the US, UK and Australia who argued that their release threatened national security, with some commentators decrying treason and Assange himself as enemy of the state.    

As each chapter is written by a different author, the book offers unique perspectives on Wikileaks and the impact the organisation has had on topics as diverse as Australia’s role in the Five Eyes Intelligence Oversight and Review Council, Australia’s foreign policy and of course, the concept of whistleblowing. Julian Burnside, barrister and human rights advocate, writes briefly about WikiLeaks as a case study into US implications of releasing classified and sensitive material – alleged war crimes footage – by noting the arrest and subsequent detainment of Chelsea Manning for “aiding the enemy”. Former senior Australian public servant and Adjunct Professor Paul Barratt’s more substantial chapter leans heavily towards setting out the Australian legal landscape in terms of national security classification of information and publishing of material. He contrasts this with the US governance of classified information, noting that “the state of the law and practice regarding the passing of classified information to journalists seems to be a mess in the US, UK and Australia”.

This chapter is followed by Associate Professor Benedetta Brevini’s chapter that further delves into both the US and UK’s responses to Wikileaks and the curious continued silence by the Australian government in commenting about the continued detainment of Assange, an Australian citizen. Silence from the Australian Federal Government, in effectively advocating for a detained Australian citizen, is a thread that runs throughout the book. Indeed, Dr Lissa Johnson outlines in her chapter ‘Torture Australian-style’ that despite the UN Rapporteur on Torture at the time, Nils Melzer, noting that Assange had been exposed to prolonged psychological torture, calls for his release or intervention into his detainment on medical grounds has so far not elicited a response.

The book ends most fittingly with a conversation between former politician Scott Ludlam and Julian Assange during the Festival of Democracy held in Sydney in 2015 and provides some interesting commentary on the subject of “despair and defiance” – an apt subject with Assange currently still in the UK awaiting extradition hearings that the United States is still pursuing, to which Assange and his supports are still putting up a strong fight against.

Whilst celebrating the range of voices writing on Wikileaks, some of the chapters are very brief, and could have been extended upon given the complexity of some of the subject matter. Yes, some are more strongly aligned as opinion pieces – without endnotes or references to designated them as such, however others could have been lengthened to provide more detail to satisfy readers curiosity. One such example is Andrew Fowler’s chapter on ‘All the Way with the USA’ which highlights the close relationship enjoyed by the US and Australia and highlights the Australian governments unwillingness to seek assurances from their close partner about treatment within the criminal justice system if Assange is extradited. 

 A Secret Australia Revealed by the Wikileaks Exposés provides interesting reading at a time when governments are quickly closing down conversations about transparency and accountability and provides a chilling insight into the power of States to protect their own machinations.

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