“What he did would have fired any other ambassador. It was reckless and rampant and put the Australian Government in a very awkward position.”
Strong comments from Malcolm Turnbull. Even more remarkable considering the former prime minister reflected on the performance of Alexander Downer, a Liberal, Australia’s longest-serving foreign secretary, a former UN special envoy and former Australian high commissioner in London – the job in which Turnbull’s barbs are targeted. “Stupid behavior… mistakes… blurting out political gossip… the worst way to do it.”
Downer’s infamous drinks in 2016 with Donald Trump’s aide George Papadopoulos made headlines again, the wine bar chat reportedly sparked an FBI investigation into Russian interference in the US presidential election this year. Or the “Rigged witch hunt‘ as Trump would have it.
The latest adventure in this spiky tale comes via excerpts from a newly published book, The Secret History of the Five Eyes, the journalist and filmmaker Richard Kerbaj. And the book, which explores the controversies and intelligence relationships between Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, has quickly garnered attention.
Some have described Downer’s actions as “those of a diplomat doing what he was paid to do: gather information in Australia’s national interest”.
According to reports, former British Prime Minister Theresa May confessed doubts on continuing a “special relationship” with Washington following baseless allegations that the British overheard Trump. China, on the other hand, is Whine over details in book of American pressure on Britain to oust Huawei from country’s 5G network. Canadian spies are accused knowing that an informant helped smuggle British teenager Shamima Begum into Syria to join Islamic State, a claim Prime Minister Justin Trudeau now has obliged to examine. (Begum is in a longstanding legal position in a Offer to return home after deprivation of citizenship.)
But back to Downer and the concern that what Papadopoulos allegedly said over drinks “should only have been leaked to Americans through the most discreet intelligence channels,” as Turnbull put it to Kerbaj.
To refresh the timeline, Downer faced Papadopoulos Kensington Wine Rooms in London in May 2016, upon hearing Papadopoulos, he claimed Russia had a dirty file on Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
“It sounded bad, but my attitude at the time was, who knows if that’s even true,” Downer is quoted as saying by Kerbaj.
Afterward, Downer sent a cable back to Canberra and reported on the conversation. About six weeks passed until July when Trump was officially confirmed as the Republican nominee. Downer then decided to bring Papadopoulos’ claims directly to the attention of US chargé d’affaires in London, Elizabeth Dibble.
“He had no authority from Canberra to do this,” Turnbull said wrote in his 2020 memoir: “And the first thing we heard about it in Australia was when the FBI showed up in London and wanted to interview Downer.”
Cue what is now a longstanding debate.
Some have described Downer’s actions are “those of a diplomat doing what he was paid to do: gather information in Australia’s national interest.” Joe Hockey, who, as Australian ambassador at the time, had to deal with the consequences in Washington and warning it could have jeopardized the exchange of information, and it has defended the actions of his former colleague.
Other questions have been raised about the urgency with which the information from Downer’s original telegram was relayed to the Americans (or if it was passed on at all). Trump pressured Scott Morrison check Australia’s role. Papadopoulos, who spent a fortnight in prison for lying and being an investigator later pardoned by Trump, throws in the whole episode strongly conspiratorial terms.
Downer admitted he would have voted for Trump, but he did dismissive:
I had to put up with Trump and some of his fringe cronies claiming for four years that I was part of a conspiracy with hillary clinton, the FBI, CIA, MI6, Italian Secret Service, ASIS, Ukrainian spies and who knows who else to bring him down. Twitter is full of calls from the hysterical right to send me to Guantánamo Bay.
So rewind. In 2016—before the Trump presidency, Brexit, “fake news,” the “deep state,” and the passing parade of Putinists who have turned modern politics into a circus—it might not have been obvious what was about to be unleashed . But, according to Turnbull, Downer’s actions called into question “the discipline and professionalism of our foreign service,” which was enough to warrant his dismissal. Why wasn’t he?
“Alexander was a good friend of mine and the Secretary of State Julie Bishop. He is our longest-serving Secretary of State, a former leader of the Liberal Party. And when we found out about his foolish behavior, we were keen to keep it confidential.”
But this raises another lingering and as yet unanswered question about this whole chaotic episode. Given the Five Eyes, why wasn’t Downer’s involvement kept confidential? Network for sharing information built on trust and secrecy?