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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.


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.

  10. Brendan Jones

    Confidential data collected by government *will* be abused.

    Particularly in business, confidential data is confidential because it confers a competitive advantage upon the owner.

    It’s naive to expect government will not use confidential information they collect to advantage party donors or government business partners.

    An actual case: A Defence DSTO scientist offered a “confidential” commercial evaluation of 11 software products which he promised would help vendors promote their products within the Defence Department. What he didn’t reveal was the DSTO had been working on their own rival product. The information he collected was a commercial gold mine, including the competitors’ pricing.

    Even if it’s for dodgy durries and cheap prawns, the information still has a commercial value.

    Under the law using any information that the official has obtained in the official’s capacity as a Commonwealth public official … with the intention of … (i) dishonestly obtaining a benefit for himself or herself or for another person; or (ii) dishonestly causing a detriment to another person” is Abuse of Public Office; an Offense under Section 142.2 of the Criminal Code, punishable by 5 years imprisonment.”

    The AFP are quick to charge whistleblowers for talking to the media, but when (if ever) has the AFP charged a public official for supplying government-collected confidential information to a favoured company?

    On the Rule of Law: “Australia’s system of government is based on the rule of law. This means that everyone has to obey the law; that no-one, no matter how important or powerful, is above the law. This means that the law applies not only to citizens but also to organisations and to people in government including the Prime Minister, the heads of government departments, and members of the armed forces”

    The ultimate deterrent is the risk of being caught. But if public officials can abuse confidential information without any fear whatsoever of being caught or charged, why wouldn’t they?

  11. Arthur Moore

    When on earth are the media going to start calling Tony Abbott and his ministers out for barefaced lying as they did with Gillard??? What’s good for the Gander is good for the Goose!!

  12. AR

    Lord Acton’s point about the abuse of Power needs to be shouted out daily – when the power is secret then the danger to freedom of individuals is indeed total.
    A/G Wombat was again shouting about the traitor Snowden endanger lives and national security.
    TT is an embarrassment to his colleagues but office is seductive but surely our judiciary must cringe everytime Mr Toad opens his cavernous mouth.

  13. rhwombat

    Oi AR! Watch who you are calling an A/G.

  14. AR

    SubterraneanKoala – my profound apologies, I beg your pardon. It wasn’t even my own mal mote, I nicked it from Justinian.

  15. leon knight

    Could be worse though – TA could give Christopher “Genteel Lunatic” Pyne a role in Foreign Affairs….

  16. Arthur Moore

    All very well Brendan but where do these lies stand on the moral compass that we are trying to bring our kids up with? In the end he has been caught out and my point is really why the double standard that the media applies when it comes to the Liberal Party and all others who dare to stand up for a bit of balance in the treatment of male and female liars?

  17. CML

    Yet according to the Nielsen poll out today, a majority (52% 2PP) of the bogans in this country would have voted to return the rAbbott and his motley crew to government, if an election has been held last weekend!
    The mind boggles!! It can only get worse.
    Of course, after they have signed us up to the TPP, we won’t have a country to worry about, at least in the legal sense. And then there is the small matter of climate change/global warming which this government will completely ignore, just in case it affects their rich mates.
    We’re stuffed!!!

  18. Bill Hilliger

    @CML …in all likelihood when the economy starts tanking many bogans will start doing it tough because of unemployment and further restrictions on handouts the polls will start tanking as well. In the meantime, let the fun begin with a hostile senate, and a front bench of main-chancers and spivs.

  19. Jimmyhaz


    I think it depends on whether the LNP can convince them its the fault of the poor welfare-dependants stealing their hard-earned money, rather than the terrible governance that they are subjecting Australia to.

    The Repub’s have done it in the US, so I think it’s definately possible in Aus, especially given the media landscape here.

  20. Josh Hill

    I’ve downloaded Stop Tony Meow and instead of a kitten all I can see is abbotts’ head at the top of this story. Please fix this problem ASAP!

  21. Bill Hilliger

    Jimmyhaz, I think Australia sheep are still different from American sheep, although our sheep are fast becoming Americanised. The level of intellect of mainstream Repub;s tea-party follower seems well below our Aussie equivalent (hopefully)!

  22. David Hand

    You can’t help it, can you.

    You have a highly newsworthy story about how Australian intelligence might be subverted to commercial activity and all you can say is Tony Abbott l ied.

    Good grief, he wasn’t even in government when the alleged spying took place and his denial may not even actually be a l ie but merely incorrect.

    Your obsession with Tony Abbott does you no credit at all. He only has passing relevancy to this story. Your, “We hate Tony” campaign merely degrades the veracity of your own publication.

  23. klewso

    Of course there’s the possibility (unlike with those pathological liars Rudd and Gillard) that Abbott might have merely been incorrect?
    We’ve all seen examples of how “boring all this detail shit” is for him?
    Unfortunately we only have his “Truth or Dare” form to go on?
    And then he was a senior member (including Leader of the House by then?) of the Howard government when they tried to rip-off destitute East Timor – to benefit (Australian tax-paying) Woodside?
    Is anyone suggesting this “industrial espionage” started under Labor?
    Such devotion of government resources to “domestic commercial aid” probably goes back further to established practice – look at “The Facilitation of Patricks”?

  24. rhwombat

    Increasingly shrill and desperate, Hand.

  25. klewso

    We’re all familiar with Abbott being unable to handle the truth in raw form – he’d much rather spar and play “Dare you to contradict me” – to see if they will “take on the man”?

    His sensitivity, now, to the sort of negativity and adversarial politics that served him so well – validated by media interested in political outcomes as acceptable then – being used to undermine his Eric Cartmanesque “authority”.

    And anyone, with his public record (for those interested) behind him, that would get up in parliament and dictate to the country “…. But it should never be a place where motives are impugned or characters assassinated….. When any of us are tempted, Mr Clerk, to be low mean or petty, the Member for MacKellar is well equipped to recall us to our duty” sans any embarrassment, after the way he used it while Leader of the House and then, later, as leader of the Opposition – personally, I reckon that takes a certain audacity and personality, of a certain (a?)moral make-up?

  26. David Hand

    Yes Wombat,
    Desperate for Crikey to get some class.
    Desperate to see something better than student level banality.
    Desperate for there to be a story, any story about federal politics that doesn’t shit on Tony Abbott.

    And I’m desperate for you lefties’ sake. You all sit around the Crikey crypt talking to each other about what a li ar tony Abbott is, comforting yourselves about how truly awful the government is, salivating about throwing him out in 2016.

    But when 2016 comes around and the coalition is re-elected, you all descend into tearful wrist-slashing about how the ev il Murdoch has used mind control to get the stupid suburbs to vote for the wrong party. Surely the left can be a bit more objective than that.

    I’m trying to help you guys! Truly!

  27. Andybob

    David Hand is correct to point out that Abbott was not in power when these events occurred. Whether or not McClelland, Roxon or Dreyfus knew about it we may never know. I suspect that ASD is simply off the leash and politicians of all stripes lack the political will to bring them to heel. If we want to change that in the wake of Snowden then we have to embarrass them about their impotence in supervising the intelligence agencies whenever possible.

    That doesn’t mean Abbott wasn’t lying. Denying the facts is something of a speciality pursuit of his.

  28. klewso

    And we appreciate you getting up off your slab over there in the bowels of Bernardi’s Cave, to grope your way over here to the crypt to stick up for Abbott and Murdoch and tell us how dumb we are for thinking as we do. But there’s just no tellin’ some folks how dumb they is?

  29. Drew Blue

    @Klewso 12.18pm


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