By: Daniel Hurst
Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, raised the case of the WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange with the US secretary of state during her visit to Washington DC this month, the government has revealed.
But Australian parliamentarians who support Assange say the government should demand his immediate release, after a US news report this week claimed CIA officials during the Trump administration had discussed abducting and even assassinating the Australian citizen.
Assange remains in Belmarsh prison in London as the US government appeals against an earlier court ruling that blocked his extradition to face charges, including allegedly obtaining and publishing classified documents in violation of the US Espionage Act.
In response to questions, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Guardian Australia: “Minister Payne has raised the situation of Mr Assange with her US and UK counterparts, most recently with US Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken on 15 September.”
The spokesperson said the Australian government conveyed its “expectations that Mr Assange is entitled to due process, humane and fair treatment, access to proper medical and other care, and access to his legal team”.
But it is unknown what assurances, if any, Payne secured from those conversations with American and British counterparts.
The case is back in the spotlight after Yahoo News published a detailed account of how the CIA had allegedly discussed kidnapping Assange in 2017, when the fugitive Australian activist was entering his fifth year sheltering in the Ecuadorian embassy.
Those deliberations reportedly sparked heated debate among Trump administration officials over the legality and practicality of such an operation.
Yahoo News reported that some senior officials inside the CIA and the Trump administration went as far as to request “sketches” or “options” for killing Assange. “There seemed to be no boundaries,” a former senior counterterrorist official was quoted as saying.
The then CIA director, Mike Pompeo, and his top officials were said to be furious about WikiLeaks’ publication of “Vault 7”, a set of CIA hacking tools, a breach which the agency deemed to be the biggest data loss in its history.
The CIA declined to comment. Malcolm Turnbull – who was prime minister at the time the deliberations in the US reportedly took place – told Guardian Australia on Tuesday: “The first I heard about this was in today’s media.”
Guardian Australia also asked Dfat whether the US had ever briefed or consulted the Australian government on the reported option of the CIA kidnapping or killing Assange, but it did not answer that question. The department is believed to be reluctant to comment on unconfirmed reports.
In his first public response to the claims, Pompeo did not confirm or deny the specific allegations in the story, but said Yahoo News’s “sources didn’t know what we were doing”.
Pompeo said: “I make no apologies for the fact that we and the administration were working diligently to make sure we were able to protect this important sensitive information from whether it was cyber actors in Russia, or the Chinese military, or anyone who was trying to take this information away from us.”
The Greens senator Janet Rice – a member of the Bring Julian Assange Home parliamentary group – said the reports indicated that the US government was “never concerned with due process or a fair trial”.
Rice said the Australian government “should be outraged and calling on the US for Assange’s immediate release”.
“The Morrison government cannot keep trotting out the same ludicrous line that we ‘expect due process’,” Rice said.
“It’s now beyond a shadow of a doubt that Assange has not, and will never, receive fair treatment. Australia cannot ignore this.”
Government backbencher George Christensen and independent MP Andrew Wilkie met the British high commissioner to Australia nearly a year ago to raise concerns about Assange’s welfare and question whether due process was being observed.
The Australian government has previously stressed the independence of the British judiciary. In February, Payne played down the idea of asking the US to drop the charges against Assange, insisting that Australia “does not interfere in the legal processes of other countries”.
US prosecutors have accused Assange under the Espionage Act of seeking to assist the former US army analyst Chelsea Manning in hacking a military computer network to obtain classified documents, and conspiring to obtain and publish classified documents in violation of the Espionage Act.
The documents allegedly exposed US war crimes and abuse.
The use of the Espionage Act in the case was heavily criticised by human rights groups who pointed out that it opened the door for its use against investigative journalists in general, much of whose work revolves around obtaining and publishing information that governments would prefer to keep secret.
Pompeo, who served as CIA director under Donald Trump before later being appointed as his secretary of state, delivered a speech in 2017 that referred to WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service”.
The Yahoo report said that it was a significant designation, as it implied a green light for a more aggressive approach to the pro-transparency group by CIA operatives, who could treat it as an enemy espionage organisation.