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.
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