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Journos Miss The Point: Spying Happens


Edward Snowden’s leaks set off a row between Indonesia and Australia this week when it was revealed by several Australian publications that the Australian government had snooped on conversations between Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife in 2009. Tom Switzer, writing elsewhere on this site, provides a helpful roundup of the flare-up, and highlights an important reality of international relations:

Never mind that a little snooping is a good thing. By learning capabilities and intentions of one’s neighbour, espionage helps reduce the prospects of conflict. Many Australian lives have been lost or threatened by terrorist attacks, bombings and even military action from Bali to Jakarta to East Timor. It is reasonable to expect Australia’s intelligence agencies to do all they can to safeguard Australian lives, using whatever tools at their disposal, Indonesia’s 3G network included.

For all their expressions of outrage, moreover, the Indonesians have long known that the Americans and Australians eavesdrop on their country. Indeed, the Australian embassy in Jakarta was the location of the first global station of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service six decades ago, and our spooks have since made Indonesia a top priority. Not that spying is a one-way street. General Hendropriyono, one of Indonesia’s own former intelligence chiefs, boasted on Australian TV in 2004 about how Indonesia regularly bugs Australian politicians, and expects the same in reverse.

The relationship between Australia and Indonesia is nowhere near as warm and as close as the one between the United States and, say, Germany, so the hurt feelings and surprise expressed by the German government over the tapping of Angela Merkel’s cell phone by the NSA are probably a bit more genuine than the crocodile tears being shed by the Indonesians.

But the principle holds in general: the purpose of intelligence agencies is to spy on foreigners, and no politician is so naive as to think otherwise. The only naifs are the journalists that run these stories thinking they are exposing some sort of important hypocrisy. Their revelations merely force politicians to feign outrage in order to save face, and thereby gum up normal relations between countries for a few weeks or months at a time—at least until the voting public forgets about it and things can go back to normal.

[Edward Snowden photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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  • Andrew Allison

    “But the principle holds in general: the purpose of intelligence agencies is to spy on foreigners, . . .” Exactly! And unfortunately VM is participating in the effort to whitewash the absolutely outrageous intrusions into the privacy of citizens rather than officials. There is, at least in my mind, a very clear and bright line between the spying that everybody does and Big Brotherdom.

    • Corlyss

      Show me one ordinary American who’s been adversely affected by the NSA’s data mining. Just one. I’m not greedy. Just one.

      • Andrew Allison

        We have an insurmountable philosophical difference, namely you want evidence of harm, I want to prevent harm.

        • Corlyss

          Agreed. That’s why the cases keep failing in the courts. Without evidence of harm, there’s no ripeness or standing.

          • Andrew Allison

            The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ Ronald Reagan

  • Corlyss

    More to the point, the Dims and libertarians don’t seem to understand, just as the ubermoralists on the Church committee failed to understand, that unilateral US disarmament in the realm leads to Beirut, Khobar Towers, WTC1, the embassy bombings, the USS Cole, 9/11, etc. Demanding purity on our side only makes it easier for those who want to kill Americans. They’re being stupid.

  • crocodilechuck

    “the purpose of intelligence agencies is to spy on foreigners, and no politician is so naive as to think otherwise”

    Incorrect. The purpose of intelligence agencies is to protect the interests of the country to which it is beholden.

    Since I doubt that you know anything about Indonesia, Walt, here’s a primer:

    1) Its the largest Muslim democracy on Earth, one quarter of a billion people, and has transitioned to that from Soeharto’s dictatorship 15 years back in a peaceful manner.

    2) It will also surpass Australia’s GDP within a few decades.

    3) And it is Australia’s one and only defense risk, < 2780 km away.

    Here's a precis of what is currently at risk in (what was formerly called) our 'special relationship:

    Here's the situation on the ground in Jakarta, where a battalion of police are guarding the AUS embassy:

    I reckon both countries understand and expect a degree of surveillance, since the 'permanent interests' of each do not invariably align.

    But Indonesian people are particularly sensitive to perceived slights, both as a cultural trait, and as junior members of the strategic alliance with THEIR nearest neighbour-AUS
    The fact that australia is a member of the 'six eyes'* club just heightens these feelings.

    SBY reacted in the identical fashion to Merkel, when she discovered her mobile had been bugged.

    In the Merkel affair, your President promised the German chancellor that the tapping of her phone would not continue.

    This is the response required from our new hapless Prime Minister, rather than his compounding the problem by underlining that the spying was not only necessary, but will continue.

    Your arrogance and ignorance of the context and significance of this event are breathtaking.

    * 'sixth eye': israel

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