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.