Australia’s Abbott has his Merkel moment

By Richard McGregor

When the US and Australia hold their annual top-level security consultations in Washington on Wednesday, they will doubtless exchange the usual bromides about the enduring value and strength of their alliance.

But the Australia defence and foreign ministers might also want to vent a little as well to their counterparts about the diplomatic mess that the former US intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden, has landed them in.

The revelation that the National Security Agency, America’s eavesdropping body, had bugged the mobile phone of German’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, provoked a crisis in Washington’s ties with Berlin. Mr Snowden has given Australia its own “Merkel moment” this week, with the publication of leaked documents detailing how Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate bugged the phones of top Indonesian leaders.

Unlike Mrs Merkel’s case, the leaked documents do not leave any room for doubt about the bugging. The 2009 DSD power point slide, sent to the NSA, lists ten Indonesian leaders, including the president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife, whose mobile phones are being tapped. The ten are listed by name and the type of phone and network they use.

A second slide captures in a chart what it calls Mr Yudhoyono’s “voice events” – in other words, all his mobile phone conversations – over 15 days in August that year. The slides are attached at the bottom of this story from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

To rub it in, some of the slides, with a touch of hubris, are tagged with DSD’s motto: “Reveal their secrets; protect our own.”

Australia’s DSD works hand-in-glove with the NSA as part of the so-called “five eyes” agreement, the longstanding pact between the nations of the Anglosphere – the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – to share intelligence and not spy on each other.

The Indonesians, a highly nationalistic nation on the cusp of a presidential election, are, not surprisingly, furious. Even if their anger is mere ritual, they have already registered their displeasure with concrete actions, pulling the plug on bi-lateral military co-operation and downgrading ties across the board.

For the new Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, the Snowden leaks are doubly disastrous. Mr Abbott needs good ties with Indonesia no matter what, and Mr Yudhoyono has long been very friendly to Australia.

On top of that, one of Mr Abbott’s core objectives, and something he campaigned on for years as opposition leader, is to stop the refugee boats which set sail from the Indonesian archipelago bringing asylum seekers to Australia.

His first overseas visit as Prime Minister was to Jakarta, where he sought and gained an elevated level of military and security co-operation from Mr Yudhoyono to stop the boats. That co-operation has now been withdrawn.

Such actions have a downside for Indonesia. The two countries have long had a strong intelligence relationship, primarily to combat the kind of Islamic terrorism that led to the Bali bombings in 2005. It was Australian signals intelligence that helped track the bombers down in Indonesia and led to their arrest.

Kurt Campbell, Barack Obama’s former top diplomat on Asia in the State Department, and who is now visiting Australia, said Canberra “has good cause to understand the delicate dynamics playing out” in Indonesia politics.

So far, Mr Abbott has toughed out the wave of criticism from Jakarta, refusing to apologise and offer the formula that the White House gave Mrs Merkel, that it was not currently, and would not in the future, bug her phone.

It may be the best he can do for the moment. If he apologised this week, he might have to do the same again and again, as more Snowden documents come out about Australian intelligence activities in Asia.

For the moment, however, score another win for Edward Snowden, as he has put Australian-Indonesia relations into the deep freeze.