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]