Australia — Minister for Defence Stephen Smith on WikiLeaks, North Korea

FRAN KELLY: As we heard ear­li­er, the US Sec­re­tary of State, Hillary Clin­ton, has described the leak of con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ments by Wik­iLeaks as a seri­ous crime, and has vowed to pur­sue the per­pe­tra­tors.
She said ear­li­er that it “puts peo­ples’ lives in dan­ger, threat­ens nation­al secu­ri­ty, and under­mines our efforts to work with oth­er coun­tries to solve shared prob­lems”.
It’s not clear what Aus­tralian cor­re­spon­dence will come to light with these leaks. We do know there are a quar­ter of a mil­lion clas­si­fied doc­u­ments though, and around 1,500 men­tion Aus­tralia in some shape or form.

Most of them are cables from the US Embassy in Can­ber­ra.

The Fed­er­al Police have been called in to inves­ti­gate, and the Gillard Gov­ern­ment has com­mis­sioned a whole of Gov­ern­ment task­force to see what can be done to try and reduce the impact of these leaks.

Stephen Smith is the Defence Min­is­ter, he joins us in our Par­lia­ment House stu­dio. Min­is­ter, good morn­ing.

STEPHEN SMITH: Good morn­ing, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: The US Ambas­sador, Jef­fery Ble­ich, has briefed the Gov­ern­ment on what to expect from the pub­li­ca­tion of the cables. How bad is it?

STEPHEN SMITH: The Ambas­sador gave me, For­eign Min­is­ter Rudd and the Attor­ney-Gen­er­al, Mr McClel­land, the cour­tesy of let­ting us know at the end of last week that this was in prospect, and we’re now going through the painstak­ing job of search­ing all of the cables that are and pro­posed to be released to ensure that Australia’s nation­al secu­ri­ty inter­ests have not been adverse­ly impact­ed upon.

This is the third round of Wik­iLeaks that we’ve seen. The two ear­li­er rounds have been much more direct­ly in my own patch, but these ones are a much wider round, cov­er­ing as they do US cables. So we just have to go through that painstak­ing process of exam­in­ing each of the cables as they come to light.

FRAN KELLY: One of the cables appar­ent­ly refers to Aus­tralia and says, “rock sol­id part­ners like Aus­tralia, don’t pack enough punch to step out in front, and the UN is a non-play­er. It falls to the US once again”.

That’s a bit insult­ing, isn’t it? What hap­pened to our sort of mid­dle pow­er kind of push there?

STEPHEN SMITH: When it comes to diplo­mat­ic cables, I think there are a num­ber of points that need to be made. First­ly, when they are released, you do have to be care­ful to ensure that there’s no adverse impact to a gen­er­al nation­al secu­ri­ty inter­est, but also the release of such cables can put peo­ple at risk, includ­ing the diplo­mats them­selves. So that’s our gen­er­al start­ing point…

FRAN KELLY: But is that their view of Aus­tralia? And is that the view expressed to you behind closed doors, that Aus­tralia real­ly doesn’t pack much punch?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, well the sec­ond point I was about to make is, of course, these are indi­vid­ual cables by indi­vid­ual diplo­mats, and you can’t take a pin prick from an indi­vid­ual cable to get a gen­er­al assess­ment.

The cable to which you’re refer­ring is an indi­vid­ual diplomat’s view about cir­cum­stances in Zim­bab­we. Now Aus­tralia has been, as a Com­mon­wealth coun­try, at the fore­front in Zim­bab­we, but every­one knows that Zim­bab­we, with Pres­i­dent Mugabe, is very, very dif­fi­cult. There’s no mag­ic solu­tion there.

But when I have con­ver­sa­tions with my coun­ter­parts, whether it is Sec­re­tary of Defence Gates, or whether it’s Sec­re­tary of State Clin­ton, Aus­tralia is held in very high regard for the role that we play inter­na­tion­al­ly.

FRAN KELLY: Anoth­er cable appar­ent­ly express­es con­cerns about Aus­tralian cit­i­zens who’ve gone miss­ing, or dis­ap­peared and they’ve end­ed up on US ter­ror­ist watch lists as a result, because they’ve dis­ap­peared in the Mid­dle East. Can you con­firm this? Do we know about this? Is this a con­cern for Aus­tralia? STEPHEN SMITH: First­ly, I’m not going to get into a run­ning com­men­tary, cable by cable, that’s the first point.

Sec­ond­ly, more to the point that I made ear­li­er, it is the poten­tial that very many of these cables go to not just diplo­mat­ic report­ing, but also to either intel­li­gence mat­ters, or to secu­ri­ty mat­ters, or to oper­a­tional mat­ters, and that is the very grave risk here.

In the two ear­li­er batch­es of Wik­iLeaks releas­es, which dealt with effec­tive­ly Iraq and Afghanistan, we had to, and in the case of the Afghanistan leaks, are still going through the process, had to go through a painstak­ing process of ensur­ing that peo­ple weren’t placed at risk, or that our oper­a­tions or our nation­al secu­ri­ty inter­ests weren’t prej­u­diced. And we need to do the same thing here.

Now it’s also the case, because you’re deal­ing with hun­dreds of thou­sands of indi­vid­ual cables, that there will be ref­er­ences in those cables which peo­ple regard as either a sala­cious com­ment on an indi­vid­ual, or voyeuris­tic, one expres­sion I’ve heard on the ABC itself this morn­ing. Those com­ments always need to be kept in per­spec­tive. But from our point of view, our start­ing point here is very calm, method­i­cal, tra­vers­ing through the cables as they’re released, to make sure that nei­ther our nation­al secu­ri­ty inter­ests, nor Aus­tralians’ indi­vid­ual wel­fare, is put at risk.

FRAN KELLY: There’s been a lot of com­men­tary about how dam­ag­ing this might be for the US and its allies, but what about putting lives at risk? Could Aus­tralian lives be at risk, and do you agree with the White House that these cable leaks could put lives at risk more broad­ly?

STEPHEN SMITH: Absolute­ly, absolute­ly. It’s the same point that I and my pre­de­ces­sor, Defence Min­is­ter Faulkn­er made about the ear­li­er releas­es. But because these ones cov­er a wider ambit, we have to be very care­ful to ensure that indi­vid­ual diplo­mats haven’t been put at risk because of com­ments that they may have made, which might be includ­ed in cables, or that peo­ple who are cit­i­zens of oth­er nations, who are work­ing close­ly with Aus­tralia, or indeed with the Unit­ed States, that their inter­ests aren’t put at risk because of these unau­tho­rised dis­clo­sures.

FRAN KELLY: Well the first leaks were back in July, I mean have you had any intel­li­gence to sug­gest there have been con­firmed deaths linked to these leaks so far?

STEPHEN SMITH: On the first batch of leaks, the Afghanistan leaks, I indi­cat­ed pub­licly some time ago that we had painstak­ing­ly gone through those mate­ri­als and come to the con­clu­sion that there was no adverse nation­al secu­ri­ty, or oper­a­tional or indi­vid­ual risk. We are still going through the Iraq leaks to try and sat­is­fy our­selves on that same basis. The pre­lim­i­nary reports that I’ve had, at this stage we don’t believe there’s any­thing which has caused any oper­a­tional or secu­ri­ty risk. But we haven’t com­plet­ed that task, and we will need to do, as we are, exact­ly the same with this round of leaks.

FRAN KELLY: And Min­is­ter, what is that, can you give us a sense, this com­mit­tee, are they sit­ting around a table going through one by one, every sin­gle one of these quar­ter of a mil­lion cables in this lat­est lot, and mil­lions before that?

STEPHEN SMITH: That is what has occurred in the past, and what is in prospect. As I said ear­li­er, because the first two batch­es were essen­tial­ly direct­ly in the Defence space, we estab­lished a Defence task­force. Because these cables cov­er a much wider ambit, there has been estab­lished a whole of Gov­ern­ment, or an across-Gov­ern­ment com­mit­tee on which Defence is rep­re­sent­ed, but as is the Attor­ney-Gen­er­al, the Fed­er­al Police, the Min­is­ter for For­eign Affairs, or the For­eign Affairs and Trade Depart­ment.

So it’s a sep­a­rate task­force deal­ing with these dis­clo­sures, but that is the way in which this mat­ter has to be dealt with. Offi­cials need to go painstak­ing­ly through each of the cables that are released, that might have an impact upon Aus­tralia, and make a judge­ment about whether our inter­ests have been adverse­ly impact­ed, and whether there’s any­thing we need to do about it.

FRAN KELLY: We’d bet­ter talk about North Korea now, or ten­sions on the Kore­an penin­su­la…

STEPHEN SMITH: Sure.

FRANK KELLY: …yes­ter­day the South Kore­an Pres­i­dent warned that his coun­try would strong­ly retal­i­ate to any fur­ther provo­ca­tion from Pyongyang. Do you think it will come to that? Has the Com­mu­nist North stepped back, do you think, or are you con­cerned?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, obvi­ous­ly we’re very con­cerned. Cer­tain­ly we believe strong­ly that the Repub­lic of Korea, and Pres­i­dent Lee have con­duct­ed them­selves with great restraint in the face of ter­ri­ble provo­ca­tion, not just the recent mis­sile bar­rage, but the sink­ing of the Cheo­nan and North Korea’s nuclear pro­gram.

So we con­tin­ue to urge restraint, just as we con­tin­ue to say that we strong­ly sup­port the Repub­lic of Korea at this very dif­fi­cult time.

Yes­ter­day, for exam­ple, we saw the Unit­ed States and Repub­lic of Korea naval exer­cise. We had an offi­cial on board the USS George Wash­ing­ton as essen­tial­ly a show of sup­port… FRAN KELLY: Is that nec­es­sary, do you think that was wise?

STEPHEN SMITH: Absolute­ly, we are a mem­ber of what is described as the Unit­ed Nations Com­mand Mil­i­tary Armistice Com­mis­sion, and that’s the Unit­ed Nations body which has the job of effec­tive­ly super­vis­ing or mon­i­tor­ing the Armistice Agree­ment. We’re, of course, not a par­ty to the Armistice Agree­ment, which end­ed the Kore­an War in the 1950s, but we are a par­ty to the Unit­ed Nations Com­mand Mil­i­tary Armistice Com­mis­sion, and we were one of three mem­bers of the Com­mis­sion — there are some 16 mem­bers — who were invit­ed by the US and the Repub­lic of Korea to observe. We observed yes­ter­day with France and the UK also rep­re­sent­ed. And today, the sec­ond day of the exer­cis­es, there’ll be oth­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Unit­ed Nations Com­mand.

It is essen­tial­ly a way of us reflect­ing that we strong­ly sup­port the Unit­ed Nations mon­i­tor­ing of the Armistice Agree­ment, but we also strong­ly sup­port the Repub­lic of Korea at what is a very dif­fi­cult time. And we con­tin­ue to indi­cate to them, both pub­licly and pri­vate­ly, that we’re very pleased with the restraint they’ve shown.

At the end of last week, I spoke to for­mer Defence Min­is­ter Kim, and made pre­cise­ly that point.

FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for join­ing us on Break­fast.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Fran, thanks very much.

Press release
Min­is­te­r­i­al Sup­port and Pub­lic Affairs,
Depart­ment of Defence,
Can­ber­ra, Aus­tralia

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