Star Labor candidate Peter Khalil has confirmed he acted as a protected source for the US government, feeding them information about Labor's asylum seeker policy.
Khalil served as a foreign policy adviser to former prime minister Kevin Rudd back in 2007 and was also director of national security policy for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq from 2003-04. He's running for Labor in the seat of Wills at the upcoming election, replacing retiring Labor MP Kelvin Thomson.
Khalil's name appears in two US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks. According to the cables - one from 2007, the other from 2009 - Khalil conveyed information to the US embassy about the Rudd government's asylum seeker policy. The later cable lists Khalil as a "protected" source, which means his identity is not to be disclosed.
BuzzFeed News interviewed Khalil in his Melbourne campaign office on Wednesday, and asked him about his role as an informant for the US government. Khalil gave this explanation:
"Let me explain this to you. All these people running around with their conspiracy theories. I worked for a foreign policy adviser for Kevin Rudd. Part of it when you're an adviser, is that you meet with the French ambassador, the US ambassador, the Italian ambassador, you have conversations about policy and all the rest of it and then they write cables back. We do it. The Australian embassies and ambassador have conversations with the political parties and everything, this is a normal part of that work."
Khalil was an adviser to Rudd at the date of the first cable. But he no longer worked for the former Labor leader at the time of the second. We asked Khalil why he was still providing information to the US embassy when he no was longer working for Rudd, in 2009. Here's what was said:
BuzzFeed News: "What was your position at the time, in 2009?"
Khalil: "I don't think it was 2009, I think the cables were earlier than that."
BuzzFeed News: "There was one in 2007 and one in 2009."
Khalil: "Well I'd left government by 2009 so … "
BuzzFeed News: " … so were you still a protected source?"
Khalil: "No I don't think that's correct. The only thing that came out of Wikileaks was from 2007 or 2008. There was nothing in 2009."
We then showed Khalil this cable.
Khalil took a close look at the cable and asked, "but was it released in 2009? What was the date of the cable?". BuzzFeed News replied, "The date is up here: 2009 October 16."
"But was it released in 2009?" asked Khalil again. "See that was [scrolling through the cable] ... not in 2009, it was in ... where is the date of the actual cable? Where is the date of the cable?"
"Is that not it at the top?" we asked again.
"I don't know. Don't know," Khalil said. "(The) date of the cable should be there somewhere."
The US diplomatic cable outlines how "Peter Khalil (PROTECT) confided to us that Labor party MPs were very anxious about the asylum seeker issues due to the events of 2001."
It reads, "Khalil predicted Rudd would 'get hit' by the public on this issue because his actions would not be commensurate with his tough rhetoric. He contended internal politics made it virtually impossible for Rudd to significantly strengthen border protection laws."
The last sentence all but confirms the cable is from 2009: "He pointed out that there were around 60,000 cases of visa over-stayers per year, while only 1000 asylum seekers have entered Australian waters by boat so far in 2009."
Later in the interview, BuzzFeed News asked Khalil where he was working in 2009.
BuzzFeed News: "So 2009, that cable in 2009, it says at the top, were you out of government at the time?"
Khalil: "I wasn't working in government, no."
BuzzFeed News: "Were you working for Brookings (Institute) at the time?"
Khalil: "I think I might have been at Brookings at the time, yeah. Or I might have left there as well."
We asked the Labor party in what capacity Khalil was providing information on the inner workings of the party to the US embassy in 2009, but they did not provide a response.
Khalil is likely to win the Melbourne electorate of Wills, a relatively safe Labor seat.
It's previously been revealed that former Labor senator Mark Arbib (remember him?) and Labor MP Michael Danby also appear in the leaked Wikileaks cables as confidential sources for US diplomats.
When Arbib was outed in particular, questions were raised about the appropriateness of, and the security risks posed by, a member of parliament providing unofficial commentary on domestic policy to foreign embassies.
BuzzFeed News asked Khalil whether voters should be concerned about his role as a US informant.
He said, "no, not at all" and then gave a lengthy explanation and passionate defence of his actions.
"When cables are sent back to capital cities about those issues, certain things come out. You have private conversations and they send them back to their capital cities. They have discussions about policy issues. Some things are talked about openly, some things are discussed because you're engaged in a negotiation or whatever. You don't want to let other countries know for example, well we don't name countries, but let's just say you've got country A and B, talking about country C, you don't want that, if there's been an issue, doing certain things. You want a frank conversation about it. This is a normal part of diplomatic work."
But Khalil repeatedly declined to say who he was doing this diplomatic work for in 2009.