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Feb 17, 2014

Tony Abbott’s highly revealing lie about why we spy

The latest Snowden revelations about Australia reveal how surveillance is aimed at economic espionage - despite the Prime Minister's claims otherwise.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

One of the interesting consequences of the latest round of Edward Snowden revelations by James Risen and Laura Poitras of The New York Times is that Prime Minister Tony Abbott immediately, blatant and demonstrably lied about Australia’s intelligence-gathering.

Risen and Poitras’ article revealed that:

  • In early 2013 the Australian Signals Directorate was spying on Indonesian officials engaged in trade talks (at that point, probably relating to disputes over clove cigarettes and prawn exports) with the United States, including the Indonesians’ discussions with a US law firm;
  • ASD approached the National Security Agency via its Australian liaison officials over the surveillance; they sought advice from the NSA’s legal area (the nature of the response is unclear). The surveillance continued and the information was handed to the NSA “providing highly useful intelligence for interested US customers”;
  • ASD’s collaboration with the NSA primarily relates to China and Indonesia: NSA has given to ASD metadata from Indonesian telco Indosat and nearly 1.8 million encryption keys from another telco, Telkomsel, a mobile service provider; and
  • ASD needed “mentoring” from the NSA in 2003 over how to decrypt the communications of the defence forces of Papua New Guinea.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, responding to the story yesterday, said “we use it [surveillance] for the benefit of our friends. We use it to uphold our values. We use it to protect our citizens and the citizens of other countries, and we certainly don’t use it for commercial purposes.”

As the NYT documents demonstrate, Abbott’s last statement is plainly false: the ASD was spying on Indonesian trade officials and offered the information to the NSA, which passed it to “interested US customers”, which in turn found it “highly useful”. Unless there are Islamic terrorists lurking among Indonesian trade negotiators, or perhaps in the Chicago offices of Mayer Brown, the law firm caught up in ASD’s surveillance, it’s hard to see how the spying was anything but for commercial purposes.

The Prime Minister also appears to be woefully badly briefed on the remit of our intelligence services. The relevant acts for both ASIO and ASIS specifically permit the collection of intelligence for “Australia’s national economic well-being”.

The significance of this isn’t so much that Abbott so blatantly lied, but why he lied — to maintain the fiction that the vast global internet and telecommunications surveillance network established by the NSA and its associates in vassal states like Australia is only about terrorism and national security. Time and again Snowden’s revelations have demonstrated that the NSA’s surveillance is conducted for the purposes of economic espionage — so much so that the review panel commissioned by United States President Barack Obama in response to the whistleblowing specifically recommended that surveillance of non-Americans “be directed exclusively at the national security of the United States or our allies” and “must not be directed at illicit or illegitimate ends, such as the theft of trade secrets or obtaining commercial gain for domestic industries”.

That is exactly what the ASD has been caught out doing — just as Australian spies, using the cover of an aid program, bugged the East Timorese cabinet room for the commercial gain of Woodside in 2004.

That this surveillance machine is operating for the benefit of corporate interests also discredits the fulminations of Attorney-General George Brandis last week, when he insisted that Snowden’s revelations had harmed our national security and placed Australian lives in danger. Placing the profits of US shrimp producers in danger doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it, Senator? Nor, alas, can Brandis dispatch the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to try to hush up the NYT, as he did with the revelations about East Timor.

The revelations are a profound embarrassment to the Australian intelligence community and particularly ASD, caught out conducting a low-level economic war against Indonesia, a country our politicians are so insistent is so important to us, in which even trivial matters like prawn exports to the US are considered fit for surveillance. And there’s something humiliating in hearing how ASD, or Defence Signals Directorate as it was then, had to be “mentored” by the Americans in breaking into the communications of PNG’s tiny defence force, ranked 151st in the world.

The story also reveals the danger intelligence agency surveillance poses for one of the most basic legal principles of a democracy: legal privilege. The only reason ASD contacted the NSA was because it was a US firm caught up in its surveillance and other US companies stood to benefit, not out of concern for the legal niceties of violating attorney-client privilege. And all for some dodgy durries and cheap prawns.

When intelligence agencies spy on what clients are telling their lawyers, and share that information with each other, it makes it harder to hold governments legally accountable or to use the courts to make them obey the law. It’s more than just economic espionage; it destroys the rule of law.

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30 thoughts on “Tony Abbott’s highly revealing lie about why we spy

  1. MJPC

    BK, thank you.”It’s more than just economic espionage, it destroys the rule of law”! I am certain the Australian taxpayer will find out only too soon when the Hague completes its deliberation over the East Timor fisaco and Alex Downer ASIO adventurism on behalf of Woodside.
    In my lexicon Edward Snowdon is one of the worlds true hero’s in making this skull duggery transparent.

  2. klewso

    What is “fascism”?

  3. klewso

    ….. Abbott Tony was known to be phoney;
    He was always bending words
    And so they gave his personal Credlin
    Now his meanings are all deterred……

  4. Dan B

    Economic espionage is something that has been around forever. You get a real gist for it reading John Perkins’ “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”. Surprisingly, Indonesia features throughout…

    Spy craft is the 2nd oldest profession, next to prostitution, so why is it so alarming that we are constantly reminded it happens? Are there not more pressing matters that require more attention? Yes there are: The Trans-Pacific Partnership.

    I guess this is why the TPP was so heavily guarded against public knowledge. Since information of it began trickling out it reeks to high heaven that certain Governments want all of its/their actions inhibited from the public. It is profound that our Government is entertaining its signing. And when it does, articles like this will vanish and we will be completely kept in the dark.

    I once heard the saying “ignorance is bliss”. But I see nothing blissful about the direction our current elected leaders are leading us.

  5. Drew Blue

    “or Defence Signals Directorate as it was then, had to be “mentored” by the Americans in breaking into the communications of PNG’s tiny defence force, ranked 151st in the world.”

    If this were n’t so serious it would be hilarious.

    Ooga booga umba bumba urry up you men and hide dem spears and clubs coz dont u know, dey watchin us.

  6. MJPC

    Drew Blue, Oh so true especially when Australia gave PNG their navy (ex-RAN patrol boats- could have used them now to grab those pesky refugee’s) and their Air Force (used to be ex-RAAF DC-3’s) but probably to stop those nasty Chinese (or others apart from the US corporations) making deals with the PNG for their extensive natural resources.

  7. Bill Hilliger

    I expect the churnalists in the Ostralian Noospaper will have wall to wall articles in their rag on these latest revelations …then again I am a dreamer. I expect also that there will be a significant bounce in the polls for the gummint as tony pinochio muddles through on this issue. No wonder the AG was quick to say Snowden harmed our national security and Aussie lives. Well the AG should look closer to home at our esteemed leader and perhaps himself to see where that threat really exists. One day we as a nation will get our comeuppance from Indonesia and China in terms of reduced favouritism in trade, etc. No doubt by that time the current crop of main chancers and spivs that form this gummint will be long gone.

  8. Watcher On The Wall

    This is another tremendous article from Bernard Keane re Echelon and it’s incessant surveillance and commercial espionage.

    But it’s also just another tentacle from the giant octopus that threatens to strangle the world and drain it’s personal freedoms.

    Colonialism is still alive and well and our own PM is prepared to lie to cover it. How did Brandis ever get on that Joint Surveillance Committee?

  9. Observation

    It astounds me how Abbott and Brandis look so stupid once they venture outside of the slogans. Yes our intelligence agency has probably crossed the line and it will continue to be exposed as more details come to light. But for the sake of international diplomacy keep this pair of foot-in-mouth diseased, holier than thou wrecking balls away from it all.

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