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Opinion: Australia to Assange's rescue? Don't hold your breath

By Monica Attard, for CNN
updated 10:07 AM EDT, Tue July 3, 2012
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since last month.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since last month.
  • WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sought asylum in Ecuador's UK embassy
  • He is seeking to avoid extradition to Sweden over allegations of rape and other sex crimes
  • Many in Assange's native Australia feel Canberra isn't doing enough to support him
  • U.S. Senate's intelligence oversight committee has renewed calls for his arrest on spy charges

Editor's note: A five-time Walkley award-winning journalist, Monica Attard spent 28 years with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where she hosted PM, the World Today and Media Watch. She left to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, she published "Russia: Which Way Paradise?" about her time there as a correspondent.

Sydney (CNN) -- Julian Assange and Rupert Murdoch share symmetry in their nationality, notoriety and love of publishing. And both are household names in their homeland.

After the Levesen Inquiry into press standards in the UK, there seems little we don't know about the modus operandi of Murdoch's British news empire. Of Assange, Australians are still trying to put the pieces together.

What they know of the silver-haired founder of WikiLeaks is that he is in a whole lot of trouble holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, that a lot of high profile people support him, and that the Australian Government seems, at best, unenthusiastic about helping him.

Why Ecuador needs Assange

What detail they know about Assange's fight for "free information," his publishing of Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and those 250,000 confidential U.S. diplomatic cables is another matter altogether. There is cognisance of some unpleasantness of a sexual nature to be faced in Sweden. But what that has to do with Washington and espionage is where it gets murky.

UK police serve notice on Assange in embassy

Monica Attard
Monica Attard

Still -- through the fog of legal proceedings to get Assange to face questioning in Sweden and his claims that this is a ruse to allow the Americans to extradite him for espionage -- there is evidence that a lot of Australians believe that, as one of them, he has a right to expect his government to protect him from the U.S. -- if not the questioning in Sweden.

Some sectors of the chattering class are not so convinced. In the Australian, resident opinion columnist Janet Albrechtsen recently labeled Assange a "class A narcissist who has collected quite an entourage of adoring, useful idiots around him." That would be Jemima Khan -- one of the prettier useful idiots -- John Pilger, Geoffrey Robertson, Michael Moore and Naomi Wolf, all of whom claims Albrechtsen, enjoy a bit of attention.

One suspects that even within a government that is doing a "class A" job of cutting him loose, there is concern that Assange's imagination isn't running wild when he claims the U.S. is preparing to indict him for espionage, and that it will move swiftly and decisively to extradite him from Sweden if, as the UK courts deemed before he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, he returns there to face questioning over two separate instances of alleged sexual assault.

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Asked whether he was aware, as Assange claims, that the U.S. is preparing an indictment against him, Foreign Minister Bob Carr told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) he put the question to U.S. officials and they answered in the negative. But he added: "I suppose you could argue they wouldn't confirm it to us to the last moment. You could say that the Justice Department is proceeding on this and U.S. officials in state or in a diplomatic mission like in Canberra wouldn't be aware of it. Certainly that can't be discounted as a possibility."

It certainly can't after reported confirmation from the U.S. Justice Department that "there continues to be an investigation into the WikiLeaks matter," and renewed calls for Assange to be prosecuted for espionage from the head of the U.S. Senate's intelligence oversight committee.

None of this leaves Assange's supporters feeling calm. And they're reminding whoever will listen -- and many are -- that they should be deeply unhappy that Prime Minister Julia Gillard hasn't sought assurance from U.S. President Barack Obama that Assange has nothing to fear in facing the Swedish music. This they see as evidence of Australia's seemingly endless toadying to the U.S. Government.

It's not hard to convince Australians that our attitude to the U.S. is reverential.

Few here have forgotten the tears that recently welled in the eyes of Gillard as she regaled the U.S. Congress with her childhood memories of the Moon walk and how Americans "could do anything." Though this particular episode, coming less than nine months after Gillard unceremoniously dispensed with the previous first-term PM Kevin Rudd, traveled poorly at home, it is a reflection of a general view that Canberra's attitude towards Washington is historically backslapping, regardless of which party happens to holds the reins of power.

Judging from online comments whenever an Assange story appears, it is a safe bet that the "U.S. is out to get him" rhetoric from the "support Julian" camp is hitting home.

On "It's good to see that Assange's case is still making news and opinion websites. We must not forget him and his cause and as individual Australians we should continue to support him where our government has failed. I would ask why more is not being done by our government, but it's all fairly self explanatory, I suppose."

And this on the ABC: "As ordinary Australians we have little control over the actions of our government. We can however reveal our contempt for our sniveling leaders and vote for Assange at the next election."

And so on and so forth, with the requisite smattering of "make him face his accusers" comments.

It is a safe bet that the 'U.S. is out to get him' rhetoric from the 'support Julian' camp is hitting home.

So what exactly has the Australian government done to help Assange?

Australia says it has sought assurances from Sweden that Assange will be afforded due process if he returns for questioning. And the Prime Minister insists there's been lots of consular assistance. In 2011, Australia's Foreign Affairs Department was in contact with Assange and his team on at least 18 occasions. Assange says he hasn't met with Australia's High Commission representative since December 2010.

But all this stops short of what Assange really wants.

He wants Canberra to ask Washington directly: Is there a grand jury investigation underway and will the U.S. seek to extradite him from Sweden to the U.S.?

Given the Justice Department's reported confirmation of an investigation, perhaps Assange's desire for Canberra to spirit him home so his government can do what it has always pledged to do -- not cooperate with extradition proceedings against an Australian citizen where the death penalty might be in the offing -- will now begin to exercise minds in the Gillard government.

But as he awaits a decision from Ecuador, what are the chances Australia might give Assange what he wants?

Not great, even with the latest news out of Washington from the Senate.

In late 2010, at the height of the WikiLeaks controversy, former premier Rudd not only refuted that Assange's Australian passport might be canceled -- as suggested by another Gillard minister -- he opined the greater part of responsibility for the release of the confidential cables lay with the U.S. government's inadequate cyber security.

Compare and contrast this with Gillard's reaction to WikiLeaks' escapades, which she labeled illegal -- a claim she has not retracted even though the Australian Federal Police has found no Australian law was broken.

Exile to one of the world's least media friendly nations might be the best of a batch of bad options for Assange.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Monica Attard.

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