EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Abbott and the Indonesia espionage row
, December 7, 2013
Following the publication of a document leaked by U.S. whistle-blower Edward Snowden, a major crisis has erupted, threatening future relations between Australia and its large neighbour.
The leaked material revealed that Australia’s intelligence agencies had intercepted the telephone conversations of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and senior government officials, during the period of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership.
Mr Abbott is clearly being blamed in Indonesia for actions taken by the Rudd government, and for his refusal to apologise for them. The Indonesian government is demanding a public apology and assurances that such conduct will not be repeated.
In Indonesia, the issue has been amplified by opposition politicians keen to enhance their chances in next year’s Indonesian election by criticising both President Yudhoyono — whom they describe as being too close to Australia and the U.S. — and Mr Abbott.
In his first response to the Australian parliament, Mr Abbott declared his strong friendship with Indonesia, and indicated that he was working to build the closest relationship with it; but he declined to apologise, saying that every nation conducts surveillance operations.
The Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa and President Yudhoyono then responded, expressing anger over Mr Abbott’s failure to apologise for the telephone intercepts. The president also suspended military and political co-operation with Australia, ended police co-operation against people-smugglers, and foreshadowed other measures.
Since then, a visit to Indonesia by Australia’s Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, has been deferred, indicating that the future of Australian agricultural exports to Indonesia, including live cattle and grain, are also in jeopardy.
President Yudhoyono made specific requests of the Australian prime minister. He asked for an official explanation of what happened, an agreement that it would not happen again, and proposed that there should be new intelligence protocols between the two nations.
At the same time, crude anti-Australian protests took place outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta, and Abbott was widely denounced in the Indonesian media — as well as by the ABC, some other sections of Australia’s media and the Greens.
In an act of breathtaking hypocrisy, the ALP, under whose authority the original intercept took place, also criticised Abbott’s stance, and demanded that the prime minister apologise for the surveillance.
At the time of writing this editorial, the text of Tony Abbott’s response to President Yudhoyono had not been disclosed.
For the Indonesian government, the issue has become a question of “face”: unless Abbott apologises, Australia will be punished.
In light of the fact that Indonesia conducts its own intelligence operations in Australia — despite denials by its foreign minister — the outrage being expressed in Jakarta is confected, and is driven by ulterior considerations.
But Australia must respond as if the Indonesian concerns are genuine. This is the core of the dilemma Tony Abbott faces. There can be no completely satisfactory outcome.
In the meantime, questions need to be asked about how it was that Edward Snowden, a junior operative in the U.S. National Security Agency, was able to get access to some 200,000 top-secret documents, copy them and then pass them on in 2012 to a journalist with the British newspaper, The Guardian. These included the documents which have thrown Australia’s relations with Indonesia into turmoil.
So far, there has been no explanation from the U.S. government as to how this leak occurred. If the answer is that Snowden had a top security clearance, then the obvious conclusion to be drawn is that U.S. security clearances are worthless.
Nor is this the first time. In 2010, a low-ranking private in the U.S. Army, Bradley Manning, was able to copy 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables and 500,000 U.S. Army reports on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then give them to Julian Assange’s organisation, Wikileaks, which published them.
Australia and other Western governments need a satisfactory explanation from the U.S. as to how these massive security breaches took place, and what steps have been taken to prevent any recurrence.
Until confidence in the security of U.S. intelligence agencies is restored, any further sharing by Australia of sensitive information with the United States should be restricted.
A further issue concerns the particular document at the centre of the present crisis. It disclosed that Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate was conducting telephone intercepts of senior Indonesian government officials, including President Yudhoyono and his wife.
If indeed Australia was conducting such surveillance, was it being done with the explicit approval of the then Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, or Defence Minister, Stephen Smith? If Tony Abbott is to apologise, as the ALP demands, then Rudd and Smith should also be expected to apologise for their conduct at the time.
And who in the Australian intelligence community gave this document to the United States? No other country has any right to see such a document, and it should never have been shared with any other government.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.